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Bin Laden death not changing GOP hopefuls' plans

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.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

"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.

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."

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