Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been largely silent on the debt ceiling debate. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

One group largely avoiding the free-for-all? The Republicans running for president in 2012.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney waited twelve hours before issuing a statement this morning making clear he opposed the deal.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s campaign shipped a quote to reporters asking about his stance on the debt deal — “This deal is nothing to celebrate,” spokesman Alex Conant said — but did little beyond that to publicize his view of the compromise.

And Texas governor Rick Perry, who is expected to join the race in the next few weeks, said nothing at all.

Of the major candidates in the field only Rep. Michele Bachmann (she’s against the deal) and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman (he’s for it) saw fit to issue statements on Sunday. (More on each of them later.)

So, what gives?

For the bulk of the 2012 field, there’s little incentive to wade into a debate and a deal that has left the American public with a bad taste in their collective mouths about politics.

Every candidate in the GOP presidential race wants to distance him or herself from Washington, not tie themselves to the nation’s capitol. Getting involved — even rhetorically — in a debate in Washington is a recipe for political trouble for most of the field.

That’s especially true for Romney, Pawlenty and Perry — none of whom have any inability to influence the compromise in any meaningful way. The goal of each of these men is to be the man leading the deal in the future not a cog in the wheel of the legislative process. Putting yourself in the debt debate mix then has the potential to shrink a presidential candidate not embiggen them. (Jebediah Springfield reference!)

Viewed through that lens, the relative silence from the 2012 field is not at all surprising. Campaigning is, frankly, easier than governing as you can pick and choose the issues on which to wade into the national debate. President Obama lacks that luxury, a fact that whoever is the GOP nominee in 2012 is likely to try to exploit.

Not everyone on the Republican side was silent, however, and the decisions by Bachmann and Huntsman to sound off in a more public manner reflects their own broader 2012 approaches.

Bachmann quickly came out in strong opposition to the compromise. “The ‘deal’ [Obama] announced spends too much and doesn’t cut enough,” she said. “This isn’t the deal the American people ‘preferred’ either, Mr. President. Someone has to say no. I will.”

For Bachmann, her purity on the issue makes her irrelevant in Congress but a powerful voice in the presidential race.

Early on, she staked out ground as the not-just-no-but-hell-no voice on raising the debt ceiling — a position largely consistent with many of the caucus and primary voters who will decide the identity of the Republican nominee next year.

Therefore, the more Bachmann can identify herself as a leading voice in opposition to any sort of deal to raise the debt limit, the better it is for her positioning in the presidential race.

Huntsman is on the other end of the strategic spectrum. He has cast himself as a candidate unwilling to fight the same ideological battles of the past , someone trying to play the game — though he would likely disagree with the description of it as a game — differently.

Huntsman was the only 2012er to come out in favor of House Speaker John Boehner’s bill to raise the debt ceiling and on Sunday night cast his willingness to take a position on the compromise as the difference between him and the rest of the field.

“While some of my opponents ducked the debate entirely, others would have allowed the nation to slide into default and President Obama refused to offer any plan, I have been proud to stand with congressional Republicans working for these needed and historic cuts,” said Huntsman. “A debt crisis like this is a time for leadership, not a time for waiting to see which way the political winds blow.”

Viewed broadly, it’s abundantly clear that the only 2012 candidates who took high-profile positions did so to reinforce the space they are seeking to occupy in the race. For everyone else, the debt deal was a hurdle to clear — hopefully quickly and without a look back.


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