Ahead Of 2012, Bin Laden Death A Dilemma For GOP

May 4, 2011

For nearly a half a century, Republicans have generally held an advantage over Democrats on national security issues. But the killing of Osama bin Laden has given President Obama the biggest national security success a Democrat has had in a long time, and Republicans hoping to challenge him next year are wondering what it may mean to them.

After Sept. 11, bin Laden quickly became a fixture in the political debate in the U.S. In 2002 his face loomed on television screens, in campaign ads, including one in Georgia attacking incumbent Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a decorated and disabled Vietnam veteran, calling him soft on terrorism.

Cleland lost that fall to Republican Saxby Chambliss, who still holds the seat.

Then there was the 2004 GOP convention in New York City, held not far from Ground Zero, with former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani as the keynote speaker.

"Since Sept. 11, President Bush has remained rock solid," Giuliani said at the time. "It doesn't matter to him how he is demonized. It doesn't matter what the media does to ridicule him or misinterpret him or defeat him."

Focus On Candidates

But in the past two elections, national security has receded as an issue as economic troubles have risen. The killing of bin Laden this week brings terrorism back to center stage just as another election cycle is getting under way.

Up to now, GOP hopefuls have seemed to focus on party activists in their campaigns, including those who questioned the president's birth certificate. But then came Monday's news out of Pakistan.

"The results of this wonderful American victory with Osama, has kind of reminded everybody how serious the stakes are in a presidential race," said Mike Murphy, a GOP political strategist.

Republican strategist Ed Rogers says the events of this week may change how voters view the candidates and what they're doing — even at this very early stage.

"Part of the critique will not be who can say the most outrageous thing, but part of the critique is going to be who is the most thoughtful, who is the most serious, and who can you imagine doing what Obama did to finally get Osama bin Laden," Rogers said.

Economy Still Top Concern

But none of the Republican strategists we talked to seemed to think the death of bin Laden's would significantly alter the landscape for 2012.

GOP operative Ron Kaufmann predicts the primaries and next year's general election will be about three things: "My job, my house and putting gas in my car."

As for the impact of big foreign policy successes, Kaufman said he needed only to recall his former boss, the first President Bush.

"He tore down the Berlin Wall, ended the Cold War, had the most successful 100-day war in the history of our country and had polling numbers in the 90s and ended up losing to an unknown governor from Arkansas," he recalls.

That unknown governor was, of course, Bill Clinton.

The first official GOP presidential debate of the 2012 cycle takes place in South Carolina on Wednesday. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and returning candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas may be the best known of those participating.

Still, Rogers says the participants need to show they are aware that the race may be turning serious. He says they should congratulate Obama on getting bin Laden.

"Be gracious, give him his due," he says.

And then quickly switch the subject to jobs. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.