Potential Republican Presidential Candidates Caution Fight Against Terrorism ‘Not Over’ Despite Killing Of Osama Bin Laden

May 2, 2011 12:08am

ABC News' Michael Falcone reports:

Several of the potential Republican presidential candidates praised President Barack Obama for his administration’s efforts to kill terrorist leader Osama bin Laden while others steered clear of mentioning Obama by name.

Each of them thanked American military forces, but some warned that the fight against terrorism is “not over” yet.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's reaction was perhaps the most forceful of any of the possible GOP candidates: "Welcome to hell, bin Laden,” he said.

"It has taken a long time for this monster to be brought to justice," Huckabee said in a statement. "Let us all hope that his demise will serve notice to Islamic radicals the world over that the United States will be relentless is tracking down and terminating those who would inflict terror, mayhem and death on any of our citizens."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, responded to Sunday night’s announcement by the president that U.S. forces had killed bin Laden near Islamabad, Pakistan on Sunday.

“This is a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere,” Romney said. “Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president. My thoughts are with the families of Osama bin Laden's many thousands of victims, and the brave servicemen and women who have laid down their lives in pursuit of this murderous terrorist.”

The impact that bin Laden's death could have on the coming presidential election is clear: it complicates GOP attempts to portray President Obama as weak on national security — an argument that many of them have been trying to make in the opening months of the primary season.

And it almost certainly means that if any of the not-yet-declared contenders were planning official candidacy announcements this week, they will be postponed. The first Republican presidential primary debate is scheduled to take place in South Carolina on Thursday.

Though domestic issues like unemployment and gas prices still appear likely to dominate the national conversation heading into the 2012 race, presidential campaigns can turn on a dime. The debate about U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan defined much of the 2007-2008 primary season until the country's economic crisis emerged as the main issue just months before Election Day.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who like Romney has formed a presidential exploratory committee, called Sunday night's developments “terrific news for freedom and justice.”

“In the hours after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush promised that America would bring Osama bin Laden to justice — and we did,” Pawlenty said in a statement. “I want to congratulate America's armed forces and President Obama for a job well done. Let history show that the perseverance of the US military and the American people never wavered. America will never shrink from the fight and ultimately those who seek to harm us face only defeat. Today, justice is done, but the fight against radical Islamic terrorism is not yet over."

President Obama echoed that warning from Pawlenty in his remarks on Sunday as a huge crowd gathered outside the White House, celebrating and chanting "USA! USA!"

“His death does not mark the end of our effort,” Obama said. “There’s no doubt that Al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”

While Huckabee, Romney and Pawlenty each singled out President Obama for praise, several other possible Republican candidates did not mention the president by name in their statements.

"Thank you, American men and women in uniform," former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin tweeted. "You are America's finest and we are all so proud. Thank you for fighting against terrorism."

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who last week delivered an expansive speech on foreign policy in Washington, said, "This is extraordinary news for all freedom loving people of the world, and I commend all those involved for this historic triumph."

"Americans have waited nearly ten years for the news of Osama bin Laden's death," Santorum said. "And while this is a very significant objective that cannot be minimized, the threat from Jihadism does not die with bin Laden. As we were vigilant in taking him out we need to demonstrate we will continue to be vigilant until the enemy has been subdued."

Rep. Michele Bachmann, a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, called the death of bin Laden, "the beginning of the end of Sharia-compliant terrorism."

"I want to express my deepest gratitude to the men and women of the U.S. military and intelligence community. Their persistence and dedicated service has yielded success in a mission that has gripped our nation since the terrible events of 9/11," Bachmann said in a statement. "Tonight’s news does not bring back the lives of the thousands of innocent people who were killed that day by Osama bin Laden’s horrific plan, and it does not end the threat posed by terrorists, but it is my hope that this is the beginning of the end of Sharia-compliant terrorism." 

Although none of the major potential candidates have officially declared their intention to run for president, before Sunday night's announcement of the death of the Al Qaeda leader many of them appeared to view Obama as vulnerable to attacks on national security and foreign policy issues.

"The consequences of seeing someone learn on the job has not been pretty," Romney said at a speech earlier this month in Las Vegas, referring to what he called the Obama administration’s "wandering foreign policy." 

In an address in Washington last week, Santorum, who is looking to cast himself as a strong national security candidate, criticized Obama's approach to international issues.

"Freedom has been our watchword, our anchor and our moral guide for nearly every cause both here and abroad," Santorum said. "But today, we have lost this mission because our president doesn't believe in it."

Numbers from the most recent ABC News-Washington Post poll indicate that potential Republican candidates have, so far, been smart to promote this narrative. For example, 49 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the situation in Afghanistan — an all-time low — up 8 points since the beginning of the year.

Among those who said they disapproved of Obama's approach to Afghanistan, 70 percent said they would definitely not vote to re-elect him. It remains to be seen whether the death of bin Laden will brighten the picture for Obama come November 2012.

ABC News Political Director Amy Walter contributed reporting to this post.

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