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updated 5/4/2011 9:08:41 AM ET 2011-05-04T13:08:41

Republicans hoping to unseat President Barack Obama say they see al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's death as a welcome development but no reason to change political strategy.

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While Obama almost surely will get a boost in his poll numbers, advisers for the still-forming field of GOP candidates expect that it will be temporary and that voters will select a president based on how the economy recovers — or doesn't — over the next 18 months.

"This is a major event. I know I woke up the next morning feeling my children are safer, and that's a key issue," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas, who no longer is aligned with a presidential candidate now that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has opted out. "The question is whether voters feel safer economically. The focus will return to that fairly quickly. I don't know that this affects the bottom line except in the short term."

A trio of polls released Tuesday reflected an uptick for Obama's overall approval rating in the wake of the bin Laden's death in Pakistan at the hands of Navy SEALs.

Poll: Nine-point bounce for Obama after bin Laden news

But that could change quickly. The killing of a terrorist half a world away doesn't change the fact that the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, gasoline prices are rising and the economic recovery is sluggish. Those are top issues for voters.

Perhaps the biggest political boost for Obama is that bin Laden's death makes it much harder for Republicans to paint the president as unsteady and vacillating on national security.

Potential '12 candidates react to bin Laden's death

What-have-you-done-for-me-lately mindset
Republicans generally concluded it would appear churlish to not give Obama credit for the successful raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. So most of the likely GOP presidential candidates and congressional leaders commended the president after bin Laden's death.

But their willingness to credit Obama also may reflect a widespread belief among Republicans that any political benefit for Obama will be fleeting. The election is 18 months away, and leaders of both parties say it will be driven by economic issues such as jobs, gasoline prices and questions of whether middle class Americans feel they are losing ground.

"The public is very much of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mindset with presidential approval," said Christopher Gelpi, a Duke University political scientist who studies public opinion and the use of military force. "People experience the economy every day. They experience unemployment every day. ... Bin Laden will be old news by the time (Obama) is running for re-election."

Story: Five 2012 story lines to watch in 2011

That's why the field of likely 2012 candidates is trying to stay focused on the economy.

"The right thing is we got the bad guy. We're all Americans. This is not a Republican or Democrat thing. This is an American thing," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Tuesday, mentioning bin Laden while visiting Nashua, N.H.

But he turned quickly back to his main argument to voters about why they should elect a Republican. "A strong economy," he said.

The Thursday debate
Even though bin Laden's killing dominating the political conversation this week, economic issues were likely to be the focus when several Republican presidential hopefuls meet Thursday in South Carolina for the first presidential debate. Their advisers said they would try to keep the discussion focused on jobs and the economy, and not Obama, who will spend the day in New York City, one of the sites attacked by al-Qaida agents on Sept. 11, 2001.

Romney to skip Thursday GOP debate

"The view of him as someone who goes and kills the most hated man in America can't do anything but help him," Republican consultant Michael Goldfarb said.

But, he added, wallets were likely to trump foreign policy.

"If gas is $6 a gallon, he's got a problem that killing everyone in al-Qaida and stringing them up in front of the White House won't be enough to solve," said Goldfarb, who was an adviser to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin until a few days ago

Democrats said the successful raid will highlight the lack of national security experience among the likely Republican presidential candidates.

Poll bounce could be short-lived
But, if history is a guide, bin Laden's death could be a faint memory for many voters in November 2012.

President George H.W. Bush's approval ratings approached 90 percent after the Gulf War drove Iraq's Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Then the U.S. economy turned sour, and Bush lost his 1992 re-election bid to Bill Clinton.

How high - and long - could Obama's approval bounce be?

Obama's supporters should take note, said Ron Kaufman, a Washington lobbyist who advises Romney and was a top George H.W. Bush aide.

"I worked for a president who ended the Cold War, ripped down the Berlin Wall, ran the greatest, most successful 100-day war in our history, had poll numbers in the 90s and lost to an unknown governor from Arkansas," Kaufman said. "So, really how important do you think this will be a year and half from now?"

Similarly, President George W. Bush saw a 15-point bump in Gallup polling after U.S. forces captured Saddam in 2003.

"It started coming down within two weeks," said Goeas, the pollster.

Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who has worked for presidential and congressional campaigns, said Obama's boost in the polls "will last until someone fills up his gas tank, has to buy food or get a job."

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

Foreign policy successes typically are short-lived, he said, noting that Britons ousted Winston Churchill when World War II was over.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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