WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Potential Republican presidential candidates have little choice but to let President Barack Obama savor his Osama bin Laden victory before ramping up their criticism of his handling of the U.S. economy.
The successful raid that killed bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan has largely bumped to the background the Republican campaign to pick a successor to oppose him in 2012.
The first televised debate among several Republicans is planned for Thursday in South Carolina, the day Obama is to take a bin Laden victory lap at New York's Ground Zero.
The foreign policy victory comes at a time when the Republican field is unsettled and slow to start, with no White House hopeful seen as a front-runner and some voters clamoring for more big-name choices.
Republicans say the best policy right now is to let Obama have his day and draw attention to a shaky economy beset by high unemployment, rising gasoline prices and a dire fiscal situation, which they believe are fertile ground for denying Obama a second term.
"He's going to have a good victory for a week, it's well-deserved," said Republican strategist Scott Reed. "But next week Republicans should get back on their game of hammering on the economy, jobs, gas prices and his budget deficit."
Experts believe the election will be won or lost based on how the economy is doing and say foreign policy achievements rarely have long-lasting effects for modern presidents.
"While you cannot divorce the president's role from commander-in-chief, this week's events will certainly not guarantee a second term," said presidential historian Thomas Alan Schwartz of Vanderbilt University.
The Republicans' response to Monday's killing of bin Laden has been varied. Three top potential candidates, Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, have offered congratulations to Obama while stressing it was a victory for the U.S. military.
Romney told reporters in New Hampshire on Tuesday he did not know if the bin Laden success helps or hurts Obama politically.
"The right thing is we got the bad guy and the nation celebrates that," Romney said. "We're all Americans. This is not a Republican or a Democrat thing; this is an American thing."
On the other hand, potential candidate Sarah Palin said in Colorado the bin Laden killing was a victory for the legacy of Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
While she called the bin Laden operation a decisive victory for the president, she added: "We thank President Bush for having made the right calls to set up this victory."
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said those Republicans who found it within themselves to congratulate Obama have the statesmanlike qualities for which Americans voters hunger.
"That's what makes them seen presidential. And after the bin Laden killing that's what Republicans need in a nominee. If they don't nominate somebody Americans can imagine sitting in the Oval Office making these life-and-death decisions, they can shut the campaign down right now."
Republicans see the possibility of several issues arising from the successful raid that can be used to raise questions about Obama's policies.
Strategist Michael Goldfarb sees the Obama administration's drive to cut the defense budget as a legitimate concern.
"The American people are looking at a huge successful military operation and can see this is one institution that really works effectively. Don't you want to make the point that the president is trying to cut $400 billion from this institution but seems incapable of cutting anything else?" said Goldfarb.
There is also the question of how the bin Laden raid impacts the Republicans' jockeying for position.
Taylor Griffin, who was an aide on the presidential campaigns of Republicans Bush and John McCain, said a Republican campaign fought over national security issues could benefit a candidate like Jon Huntsman, who just resigned as U.S. ambassador to China to consider a presidential run.
"If he is able to effectively leverage his national security credentials along with his business and economic credentials, he starts looking a lot more interesting," said Griffin, a consultant at Hamilton Place Strategies.
Editing by Philip Barbara