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GOP field confronts lowered stakes in first debate

at 08:53 AM ET, 05/03/2011

In 48 hours (or so), a handful of Republican candidates will take the debate stage in Greenville, S.C., for what amounts to the official kickoff of the 2012 presidential race.

And yet, it will be a debate devoid of any of the four GOP candidates — former governors Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, as well as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — currently in double digits in national polling and is almost certain to be overshadowed by the ongoing coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden.

“We are moving forward with a debate that promises to jumpstart the conversation about who will be the next President of the United States,” Fox News Channel vice president Michael Clemente told The Fix on Monday. “As journalists, our job is not to marshal the field, but to ask questions of those who do get in.”

So, the debate is on. But what should we expect? And does it matter in the broader race for president?

Of the five confirmed candidates, only one — former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty — is even close to top-tier material.

That means that the debate is likely to be dominated by fringe candidates like Texas Rep. Ron Paul, businessman Hermain Cain, former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who ultimately are expected to have little-to-no influence on the identity of the eventual nominee.

(Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has not said whether or not he plans to attend; tomorrow is the deadline for candidates to make that decision.)

Paul and Johnson, in particular, tend to the more libertarian end of the GOP and are likely to make statements that will draw headlines but ultimately prove to people why they won’t wind up as the party’s nominee.

The challenge for Pawlenty, who is taking a “be everywhere always” approach to the nomination fight, is to use the large platform afforded by Fox News Channel to get better known among likely GOP primary voters while not being dragged down by the rhetorical excesses of the long- or no-shot candidates.

“This debate is an opportunity to make the case against President Obama in front of a nationwide audience and talk about our records,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for Pawlenty. Conant added that “Republicans can’t wait to begin the campaign to defeat [Obama].”

How hard any of the candidates will go at Obama, however, remains to be seen. Given that the debate will come just days after the announcement that a covert American operation killed bin Laden, attacking Obama too forcefully on any topic could be dangerous politically.

If the candidates do decide to go down that path, expect them to avoid direct criticism of Obama on foreign policy — with the notable exception of Paul who has been an outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in foreign wars — and try to focus on domestic topics like the economy and health care.

Ultimately, this first debate is indicative of the state of the GOP race at the moment — in flux. The debate will be more defined more by who isn’t there than who is. But all races start with a first step. And that’s what this will be.

Big bin Laden bump for Obama? Debate ensues: Pollsters are frantically rushing into the field to get reactions to the death of bin Laden.

And one thing most astute political observers will be looking for is a ”bump” — a momentary increase in President Obama’s approval rating. (See The Fix’s take from Monday.)

Not everyone agrees on this point, though.

Republican pollster Public Opinion Strategies uses a handy chart to point out that a bump is a rite of passage for presidents after major events like this, and the bumps are often significant and last for many weeks.

But others are skeptical, arguing that you never know how something like this will play out long-term. A piece in the National Journal points to President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” blunder and the Iranian hostage crisis as events that provided a momentary bump, only to cost the president later on.

There is really no way this can be a bad thing for Obama, though, barring something completely out of left field. And most smart political types wholly expect a significant bump for the president.

Kucinich for Congress ... from Washington state?: Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is one of the most colorful characters in Congress, but the latest from him strains credulity.

His spokesman confirms to the Daily Caller that the potential redistricting victim is actually considering running for reelection in an entirely different state — all the way across the country.

While Ohio is losing two districts, Washington is gaining a 10th, allowing Kucninch a chance to run for an open seat. Kucinich recently visited the state and, according to his spokesman, “fully intends to remain in Congress; he just doesn’t know in what district he will run.”

Would he have a chance? Maybe. There is a good chance that the state’s redistricting commission will draw a Democratic-leaning district in Seattle-based King County, and given Kucinich’s status as a liberal favorite, he may be able to pull out a win if the Democratic primary field gets crowded — as it often does for a seat like that.

But will it come to that? We’ve been skeptical for a while now that Kucinich would get the short end of the stick in Ohio’s redistricting process. The question is likely to be whether he would rather run halfway across the country or face a primary with a fellow incumbent Democrat (in which he would probably be favored).

The fact that his staff is floating such blatant carpetbagging, of course, doesn’t help his chances in that race.

Palin praises Bush, not Obama, for bin Laden’s death: Palin could be walking into controversy again, after offering praise to Bush but not Obama for bin Laden’s death.

Speaking at a college in Colorado on Monday, Palin didn’t even mention Obama, according to the Denver Post. She said instead, “We thank President Bush for having made the right calls to set up this victory.”

Playing politics at this time isn’t something that’s likely to help Palin. Other potential GOP presidential candidates have been careful to praise Obama, and that seems to be the correct tack.

It remains to be seen if there will be significant backlash against Palin, but this is unlikely to help her. Keep an eye on the reaction.

Fixbits:

Former Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) is joining a law firm but keeping his options open when it comes to a run for his old seat in 2012.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele blames potential GOP presidential candidates for letting Donald Trump suck up all the oxygen.

Florida state Sen. Mike Bennett (R) will challenge Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) in 2012, hoping that the district she gets from redistricting will be friendlier to the GOP.

Rep. Mike Pence’s (R-Ind.) team reportedly uploaded a video announcing his candidacy for governor before taking it down Monday morning. Pence delayed the announcement after bin Laden’s death.

New Mexico state Sen. Eric Griego (D) will run for Senate candidate Rep. Martin Heinrich’s (D-N.M.) seat.

Must-reads:

Ensign apologizes to U.S. Senate for being ‘arrogant’” — Catalina Camia, USA Today

Bin Laden discovered ‘hiding in plain sight’” — Greg Miller and Joby Warrick, Washington Post

 
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