The hosts of the first Republican primary debate, slated for Thursday, were already having a hard time wrangling participants before the death of Osama bin Laden promised to put the candidates in the tricky position of attacking President Obama in a moment of national triumph. Mitt Romney, the frontrunner who'd delayed deciding whether he'd attend the debate, announced Monday morning that he'd sit it out. Newt Gingrich's spokesman confirmed to National Journal's Beth Reinhard that the former House speaker won't be debating, either. Rep. Michele Bachmann told Fox News, co-host of the debate, that she won't be at the South Carolina event.
Top Republican have been trying to get the late-starting primary campaign going, The New York Times reported Saturday. Party leaders have grown worried that Donald Trump would become the face of the party as he filled the news vacuum formed while more traditional candidates delay getting into the race. But in the wake of the raid, even Trump toned down his usual headline-grabbing statements, issuing a statement that read, "I want to personally congratulate President Obama and the men women of the Armed Forces for a job very well done. ... We should spend the next several days not debating party politics, but in remembrance of those who lost their lives on 9/11 and those fighting for our freedom." And the dampened partisanship trickled down below the presidential level, with Rep. Mike Pence postponing his "important message" Monday, Sean Sullivan reports. Many expect Pence to run for governor of Indiana. (Or course, partisans who don't plan on running for elective office had no trouble finding ways to attack their opponents this morning.)
That means the candidate with the most mainstream support at the debate will be former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty praised Obama more than some of his fellow likely candidates--a few of whom, ABC News' Michael Falcone noted, avoided using Obama's name, including fellow probable debater Rick Santorum. Falcone argues that the raid in Pakistan "complicates GOP attempts to portray President Obama as weak on national security--an argument that many of them have been trying to make in the opening months of the primary season." National security looked like an opening for Republicans--49 percent of Americans disapprove Obama's handling of the Afghan war.
The First Read team at NBC News sees bin Laden's death as a "game changer," and offers a reminder of how much the 9/11 attacks changed American politics last decade.
"They ensured that the 2004 presidential election would be fought over national security; they resulted in Democrats picking John Kerry as their nominee and Republicans picking New York City as their convention site; and they ultimately led to Bush’s re-election, albeit in a closely contested race. While it's doubtful that Osama bin Laden’s death will have as long of a political impact... it will surely shape the contours of next year's presidential race. For starters, it will hover over the first Republican debate set for this Thursday, even if it’s not a direct question. It also will highlight the GOP field's foreign-policy and national-security credentials, or their lack thereof."
Statements from potential GOP candidates:
Mike Huckabee: "It is unusual to celebrate a death, but today Americans and decent people the world over cheer the news that madman, murderer and terrorist Osama Bin Laden is dead. ... It has taken a long time for this monster to be brought to justice. Welcome to hell, bin Laden. ..."
Mitt Romney: "This is a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere... Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president. My thoughts are with the families of Osama bin Laden's many thousands of victims, and the brave servicemen and women who have laid down their lives in pursuit of this murderous terrorist."
Tim Pawlenty: "In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush promised that America would bring Osama bin Laden to justice--and we did. ... I want to congratulate America's armed forces and President Obama for a job well done. Let history show that the perseverance of the US military and the American people never wavered. America will never shrink from the fight and ultimately those who seek to harm us face only defeat. Today, justice is done, but the fight against radical Islamic terrorism is not yet over."
Sarah Palin: "Thank you, American men and women in uniform. You are America's finest and we are all so proud. Thank you for fighting against terrorism."
Rick Santorum: "Americans have waited nearly ten years for the news of Osama bin Laden's death. And while this is a very significant objective that cannot be minimized, the threat from Jihadism does not die with bin Laden. As we were vigilant in taking him out we need to demonstrate we will continue to be vigilant until the enemy has been subdued."
Michele Bachmann: "I want to express my deepest gratitude to the men and women of the U.S. military and intelligence community. Their persistence and dedicated service has yielded success in a mission that has gripped our nation since the terrible events of 9/11. ... Tonight's news does not bring back the lives of the thousands of innocent people who were killed that day by Osama bin Laden’s horrific plan, and it does not end the threat posed by terrorists, but it is my hope that this is the beginning of the end of Sharia-compliant terrorism."
Newt Gingrich: "This victory is a tribute to the patient endurance of American justice... I commend both President George W. Bush who led the campaign against our enemies through seven long years and President Obama who continued and intensified the campaign in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. ... Without the courage and professionalism of our men and women in uniform and in the intelligence services, this victory would not have been achieved."
Rudy Giuliani: "I feel a great deal of satisfaction that justice has been done, and I admire the courage of the president to make a decision like this because if something had gone wrong everyone would be blaming him... And I admire the courage and professionalism of our military intelligence officials who carried this out and this is a great victory against terror. Nobody can minimize it. He was a symbol more than anything else right now but ... symbols are really important."