It’s a long way from Abbottabad and the White House Situation Room, but in Adel, Iowa, last night, about 100 locals turned up at their town library to take the measure of a leading GOP presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty. With President Obama enjoying a bounce in the polls, the task of knocking him out of the White House isn’t looking any easier for Pawlenty and his fellow hopefuls. But Pawlenty urged his rivals, several of whom have been tentative or indecisive about running, to start campaigning in earnest as soon as possible.
As it happened, the Iowans in Adel weren’t terribly interested in bin Laden, or in foreign policy at all. They were fired up about the debt, gun control, lying politicians and, of course, health care (although a local GOP county co-chair, Mike Elam, told me he thinks “ObamaCare” may no longer be the top issue for Iowa conservatives: “It has been overtaken by the budget situation,” Elam said).
Pawlenty dispensed with the bin Laden question early in his opening remarks. “I congratulate tonight President Obama for his decision making and handling of Osama bin Laden,” said the former Minnesota governor, who also saluted George W. Bush and the U.S. forces who completed the job. He deliverd an otherwise standard stump speech, one that focused on his conservative record in Democratic Minnesota — “If we can do it there… then we can do it anywhere” — a U.S. “corroded” by big government, the need to debate entitlements honestly — “We have to educate the public, not by scaring them, not by freaking them out” — and the role of faith in America — “We need to be a country that runs toward, God not away from God.”
And, as the Des Moines Register noted in its coverage today, Pawlenty also focused on politics, urging other 2012 Republican hopefuls to start breaking a sweat. “I think it’s time to say, ‘It’s time to get off the sideline,” Pawlenty said. “We’ve got less than a year and a half to beat [Obama] … and it’s going to take all of us going full tilt to beat him.” That sounded like a message in particular to his chief rival, Mitt Romney, who is skipping the first Republican debate tomorrow in South Carolina. (Pawlenty will attend.) It may also have been a message to the likes of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who are musing aloud about possible runs–but not actually plunging into the race.
But it’s bin Laden that everyone’s still talking about. After Pawlenty spoke, I asked his new campaign manager, Nick Ayers, whether bin Laden-mania had changed the plans and assumptions of the Republican candidates. He said no. “When we heard the news, we were elated. We cheered,” Ayers said, adding that the campaign had not gamed out the politics.
That would make Pawlenty’s strategists unusual among political insiders. But the important question is not how much bin Laden’s capture matters to them–but how much it will matter to voters next November.