First debate tonight — where are all the candidates?

Tonight, in Greenville, South Carolina, the first debate with Republican presidential candidates will be held. But they are such a weak group that the debate might as well be canceled.

Of the five participants, only former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty is potentially a serious candidate. The other, former head of Godfather’s Pizza, Herman Cain, two libertarians — former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and Texas congressman Ron Paul, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, are not serious contenders.

All of the better known names — Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann – are absent. None of them have yet to enter the contest full-heartedly. Some of them are sort of half the candidates, others are waiting. Their reluctance has increased the uncertainty in the Republican Party about who will be the party’s candidate against Obama next year. With growing uncertainty comes increasing nervousness.

Osama bin Laden’s death has not made things any easier for the Republican candidates, quite the contrary. Bin Laden’s death is a huge security policy success for Obama, perhaps the biggest victory in years for a democratic president, writes Dan Gonyea on National Public Radio’s website.

This week’s poll numbers also point to an upside for the president. The Washington Post / Pew Research survey increases support for Obama by 9 percent, from 46 to 55 percent. Other polls indicate smaller gains, as FiveThirtyEight reports in its analysis of the political mood in the country.

American voters now have a new perspective on Obama as a forceful foreign policy leader. However, that does not automatically translate into a victory next year. The economy is still too fragile and unemployment too high – those issues determine elections, not foreign policy. Remember: “it’s the economy, stupid.”

Perhaps this gives hesitant Republican candidates some hope, but it is also a fact that they now have an even more formidable opponent than they had just a few days ago.

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