PAWLENTY, BARBOUR SPLIT OVER DEFENSE SPENDING…. Ask the American mainstream which parts of the budget should get cut, and more often than not, one of the more common responses is the Pentagon budget. But in Republicans politics, it’s not nearly this simple.

There’s a contingent within the GOP that’s so desperate to cut federal spending, they’re willing to put defense on the table. But in the larger context, it’s a fairly small contingent — most of the Republican Party, alleged deficit-reduction goals notwithstanding, consider funding for the military off-limits. You’ll notice, for example, that the House GOP is unwavering in its drive to slash spending, but only from non-defense, domestic discretionary funds.

As it turns out, this might be one of the few areas of division when it comes to the 2012 Republican presidential field, which necessarily makes it an issue worth watching.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) surprised some folks this week while campaigning in Iowa, arguing that defense cuts make sense. “Anybody who says you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon,” Barbour said. “We can save money on defense and if we Republicans don’t propose saving money on defense, we’ll have no credibility on anything else.”

And sure enough, one of his top rivals, campaigning in South Carolina, pounced.

A day after Haley Barbour called for cuts in defense spending, Tim Pawlenty went the other way.

“I don’t think we should be talking about cutting the Pentagon’s budget,” the former Minnesota governor told POLITICO after a speech at the Aiken Republican Club here. “I think we should be talking about looking for those areas where we might some efficiencies or redeploying money spent on defense to higher-priority areas within defense. In other words keep the defense budget intact, but if we find some savings, some efficiencies, some ways to redeploy money we should do that.”

We’re spending $700 billion a year on defense, nearly as much as every other country on the planet combined. Pawlenty wants to make sure that total “continues to grow,” though he’s willing to consider moving money around within the Pentagon budget. How responsible of him.

It’s too soon to say whether Barbour will stick to this line, and how much pushback he’ll receive. As a rule, vowing to cut defense spending isn’t a winning strategy for a Republican presidential hopeful, and it’s easy to already imagine the ads about those who would dare “cut funding for our military during a time of war and international terrorist threats.”

But the Mississippi governor deserves credit for taking the risk, and I’ll look forward to the reactions from the GOP base that claims to put spending cuts at the top of their to-do list.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.