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GOP debate drowned out by din of excitement over bin Laden's death

Barely a week ago, the top story in American politics involved Barack Obama's birth certificate. The President released the original long version of the document to silence Donald Trump and his "birther" friends for good.

"We do not have time," Mr. Obama scoffed, "for this kind of silliness."

Little did the world know then just what he meant. The full extent of the President's irritation toward Mr. Trump became clear only four days later, after he had commanded the operation that left Osama bin Laden dead.

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For many Republicans, the birther incident cast their party in an unseemly light by allowing Mr. Trump to hijack the news cycle and turn the GOP presidential nomination race into a circus act.

The President's stellar performance as commander-in-chief during the Navy SEAL raid on Mr. bin Laden's Pakistani compound only served to further distinguish Mr. Obama from a hapless field of GOP contenders. Mr. Obama's visit on Thursday to the site of the World Trade Center in New York, where emotions, patriotism and appreciation will run high, will cement that impression.

This is the disconcerting reality that confronts Republicans as they descend on South Carolina on Thursday for the first formal debate of the 2012 nomination contest.

It was not supposed to be like this.

The GOP emerged from last fall's midterm congressional elections in the driver's seat. Money, motivation and momentum were all on its side. Mr. Obama had seen his approval rating among pivotal independent voters sink to the low 30s, putting him at serious risk of becoming a one-term president.

But Republican hopes of retaking the White House in 2012 have gone downhill since then. None of the leading declared and undeclared candidates for the nomination is sparking palpable excitement among the rank and file, much less the broader electorate.

And now, with the death of Mr. bin Laden, Mr. Obama has deprived Republicans of their traditional advantage on national security issues.

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"Given the recent news [on Mr. bin Laden]and given the state of the Republican field, it's really going to be a non-event," Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, said of Thursday's GOP debate.

That was hardly the case four years ago, when the South Carolina GOP debate was pivotal in shaping the nomination race. In 2007, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee jostled for advantage in the debate.

This time, none of the leading the candidates for the nomination - Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich nor Mr. Trump - is even bothering to show up.

That is a curious considering that, since 1980, no Republican has gone on to win the nomination without winning the South Carolina primary, which is third in line after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

The official reason for their absence is that none has filed formal candidate's papers with the Federal Election Commission, though that appears to be a flimsy excuse for Mr. Romney. He has launched an exploratory committee, which is the sole requirement for joining the debate.

But the former Massachusetts governor is apparently hoping to delay his formal entry into the race as long as possible. That enables him to preserve his front-runner status without having to confront lesser-known candidates such as ex-Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.

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It is Mr. Pawlenty, however, who could end up having the last laugh. With the absence of the big name candidates in South Carolina, Mr. Pawlenty "may be able to penetrate the general fog of ambivalence" surrounding the nomination race, Prof. Taylor said.

Indeed, Mr. Pawlenty, 50, has been racking up oodles of goodwill among Republican powerbrokers in Iowa and South Carolina by making himself more available there than any other candidate.

In both states, social conservatives weigh heavily in the nomination process and Mr. Pawlenty has played up his evangelical Christian faith as he courts Iowa and South Carolina Republicans. As the moderate ex-governor of a neighbouring state, Mr. Romney is already considered the heavy favourite in New Hampshire. So, Mr. Pawlenty's strategy involves winning Iowa and South Carolina to catapult him toward the nomination.

He's got his work cut out for him. In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, more than three-quarters of Republican voters said they did not know enough about him to form an opinion. Only 23 per cent said that about Ms. Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice-presidential nominee.

Mr. Pawlenty will face off Thursday night against Texas congressman Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, ex-New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and Herman Cain, an African-American businessman from Georgia.

It's not quite the A-team. But, then again, the GOP doesn't yet have one.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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