WASHINGTON — Republicans who mocked President Barack Obama's election as a cult victory and derided his health plan as a government takeover are scrambling to respond to his national security triumph in taking down Osama bin Laden.
While some GOP leaders have been effusive in their acclaim of Obama's derring-do, far more haven't even gone so far as to damn him with faint praise.
They've simply neglected to name him, hailing U.S. military and intelligence personnel, but sounding as if Obama isn't their commander in chief, much less president.
A McClatchy analysis of responses from 110 Republican lawmakers and potential 2012 White House rivals — from a total of about 300 — shows an almost comical range, from the inference that George W. Bush is still the president to grudging admiration by a distinct minority.
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"We thank President Bush for having made the right calls to set up this victory," former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told students at Colorado Christian University within 24 hours of bin Laden's death.
Palin, the 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee, didn't mention Obama in that speech or in statements on Facebook or sarahpac.com, her main online fundraising portal.
Several other Republicans who are weighing or launching presidential bids against Obama were more magnanimous, among them former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and real estate mogul Donald Trump.
"President Bush promised that America would bring Osama bin Laden to justice, and we did," Pawlenty said. "I want to congratulate America's armed forces and President Obama for a job well done."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee delivered phantom praise. Instead of recognizing Obama's direct hand in planning the bin Laden raid and setting its key rules of engagement, Huckabee portrayed him as a kind of Athenian messenger delivering news of Greek warriors' victory on some distant battlefield.
"The leader of al Qaida — responsible for the deaths of 3,000 innocent citizens on September 11, 2001, and whose maniacal hate is responsible for the deaths of thousands of U.S. servicemen and women — was killed by U.S. military," Huckabee said. "President Obama confirmed the announcement late last night."
Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor who served on Bush's National Security Council, said Obama was closely involved in the raid's planning and made a handful of crucial decisions for a high-risk mission by an elite Navy SEAL unit that, had it failed, might have doomed his presidency.
"He bet his second term on these guys," Feaver said. "He understood there was a deep political risk to this."
Among the rules of engagement that Feaver said he was certain Obama had decided were: using a ground raid instead of bombs, deploying elite special forces rather than traditional troops, not telling Pakistan about the raid, killing bin Laden instead of taking him alive and disposing of his corpse at sea after performing Muslim last rites.
"Let's just be precise here," Feaver said. "It took courage to do it with humans rather than bombs, and to go about it in a way to confirm to our satisfaction that we got the right guy. If it had gone poorly, there would have been a lot of second-guessing."
Feaver and others also expressed admiration for the mission having been kept secret for many weeks, which they said reflected Obama's discipline and control of his top aides.
More than two in three GOP leaders didn't mention Obama, much less credit him, in their responses to the stealth assault May 2 by an elite Navy SEAL unit on bin Laden's complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
"It's not accidental in the slightest," said Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a research center in Washington. "If you are a significant public figure putting together your response to an event of this magnitude, you're going to think it through, talk about it with your staff and be very careful about what you say or don't say."
Ornstein and other analysts said Republicans found it hard to credit Obama for the raid because national security was a longtime bastion of GOP strength that the party was loath to relinquish.
As recently as two weeks before the raid, prominent Republicans were accusing the president of being weak on Libya, which followed earlier claims that he went all wobbly on Egypt before finally pulling the rug from beneath now-fallen strongman Hosni Mubarak.
In a speech March 18 at the California Republican Convention, John Bolton, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Bush and has mused about running for president, said Obama wasn't fit to sit in the White House.
"When President Obama took the office on Jan. 20, 2009, when it came to foreign policy and national security, he wasn't qualified to be president," Bolton said. "Today, more than two years later, he's still not qualified."
Post-bin Laden, it will be harder to make such claims.
"Everything about this raid demolishes those arguments," Ornstein said.
The Republican ambivalence about bin Laden's death may be personified by Rush Limbaugh, who delivered an eight-minute ode to his nemesis before intoning: "Thank God for President Obama."
The conservative commentator's praise of Obama was so over the top that it set off lively online debate among his listeners about whether he'd been sarcastic.
(Lesley Clark, David Lightman, Erika Bolstad, Halimah Abdullah, Kevin G. Hall, Maria Recio, Renee Schoof, Margaret Talev, Michael Doyle, Rob Hotakainen, David Goldstein and Barbara Barrett contributed to this article.)
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