The GOP race for the 2012 presidential nomination arguably gets underway Thursday night in South Carolina. Because front-runner Mitt Romney has declined to participate and because other significant candidates or potential candidates including Jon Huntsman, Mitch Daniels and Newt Gingrich are also skipping the event, there is much less interest in what is said in Greenville.
But Republicans and analysts alike should pay close attention to how former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former United States Senator Rick Santorum address what will certainly be an extended discussion of the circumstances surrounding the killing of Osama bin laden.
Three separate issues are emerging in the aftermath of the triumph of the SEALs this past weekend.
First, was the mission moral? This is the easiest question to answer and the unequivocal "yes" that comes from everyone but Ron Paul and perhaps Gary Johnson will once again demonstrate why the GOP remains firmly anchored in seriousness on matters of foreign policy and national security. The anti-war Left is making noises about disgust with America's exercise of its military prowess, but the fringe that questions the rightness of the assault simply doesn't matter.
The next question concerns the debate over the release of the photograph of the dead bin Laden. President Obama has now committed himself to secrecy when it comes to the picture, and while the rationale for secrecy shifts from talking point to talking point, it seems clear that the United States is afraid of offending jihadists and their sympathizers. Look for either Pawlenty or Santorum to knock the president's policy in this area, and watch the approval of that candidate climb as he does so. Americans are tired of being told that they must tread lightly on the sensibilities of barbarians, and that is what those who would riot, maim and murder in response to a photograph of a dead mass murderer are.
Finally and most interesting, listen for a vigorous defense of enhanced interrogation techniques, the operation of the CIA's "black sites," and of course of Gitmo and the invasion of Iraq. If either the governor or the senator take up the defense of the Bush Administration's conduct of the war on terror, and in so doing uses the term and sends praise the way of W and his team, the hearts of GOP faithful and many independents as well will be well and truly won.
When debate organizers set up the South Carolina skirmish, they had no way of knowing that the headlines of the week would turn their forum into a much watched exploration of American policy going forward in the war in which we have been engaged for the past decade. Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum have been handed a unique opportunity to speak boldy in defense of American military power and the right of the nation to defend itself in the long war.
Such opportunities for clarity and the command of a fleeting national attention span are few and far between. Watch for these two candidates not to miss their chance to speak the truth of the war to the MSM and beyond the Manhattan-Beltway media elite to the GOP primary electorate beginning their assessment of who ought to be their standard bearer in 2012.