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Former speaker of the house of representatives Newt Gingrich arrives to address the National Rifle Association's 140th annual meeting, Friday, April 29, 2011 in Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic/AP/Keith Srakocic/AP)
Former speaker of the house of representatives Newt Gingrich arrives to address the National Rifle Association's 140th annual meeting, Friday, April 29, 2011 in Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic/AP/Keith Srakocic/AP)

Republicans still yearning for white knight Add to ...

There are few unequivocally great weeks in the life of any U.S. president, but Barack Obama just had one that could change the course of his country - not to mention his career.

Still basking in a post-bin-Laden bump in his approval rating, Mr. Obama woke up Friday to news that the long dormant U.S. economy created nearly 500,000 jobs in March and April - all of them in the private sector.

In between those high-five moments in the West Wing, there was the strange spectacle Republicans put on in South Carolina, where some of the party's most eccentric characters debated each other in the first encounter of the 2012 GOP presidential nomination contest. In the end, there was less talk about those who showed up for the vetting than those who did not.

The GOP race is suffering from a failure to launch. A third of all voters in an April 27 University of Iowa poll opted for "someone else" when asked to choose among the seven most oft-mentioned names, from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on through to Newt Gingrich, who is set to formally announce his candidacy for the nomination on Wednesday.

Have Republicans already forfeited the 2012 race?

Incumbent presidents are usually hard to beat. But the same polls that show a post-bin-Laden spike of 10 percentage points in Mr. Obama's overall approval rating also reveal deep dissatisfaction with his handling of the economy.

No president has won re-election with a jobless rate higher than 7.2 per cent. It's now at 9 per cent. Mr. Obama likely needs to see monthly job growth that at least matches the recent numbers between now and late 2012.

To have even a shot at beating the President, however, Republicans need to find a worthy challenger.

"Here's what I'm curious about: Jon Huntsman," retired real-estate agent Joyce Bridges, 63, said of the man who just stepped down as U.S. ambassador to China. "He could be the fresh new face that I'm looking for."

Greenville's Ms. Bridges is among the 93 per cent of GOP voters who, according to a recent CBS News poll, said they did not know enough about Mr. Huntsman to form an opinion about him. But the yearning for a white knight that she expresses is all too common among Republicans.

Mr. Huntsman, 51, is a dashing former Utah governor to whom Mr. Obama awarded the Beijing post in 2009, in what was widely seen as a ploy to keep a potential rival occupied beyond the 2012 election. It didn't work.

While Mr. Huntsman did not take part in Thursday's debate, he provided more evidence that he is moving closer to a presidential bid with a weekend trip to South Carolina. He delivered a graduation speech at a local college, met privately with Governor Nikki Haley and hobnobbed with Republicans at a state GOP convention.

Like Mr. Romney, who came fourth in the 2008 GOP primary in South Carolina, Mr. Huntsman is a Mormon. And no candidate has gone on to win the nomination without winning the South Carolina primary, in which conservative Christians typically loom large.

But the state's new GOP governor, herself the daughter of Sikh immigrants, insisted that race and religion are no longer obstacles to political success in South Carolina.

"This [primary]will be very much like my election," Ms. Haley, 39, said in an interview. "It doesn't matter whether you're male or female or black or white or what your religion is. The person that best communicates and reaches out to everybody will win."

Ex-U.S. ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, a former state speaker who led Ms. Haley's transition after she won office in November, added that the biggest factor for South Carolina Republicans in choosing the party's 2012 nominee remains the $14-trillion (U.S.) federal debt.

"It's 'What are you going to do about the deficit? How are you going to curtail spending,' " Mr. Wilkins explained. "That is the dominant issue in South Carolina and, I believe, everywhere."

Outside Greenville's Peace Center, the site of the GOP debate, Lenna Neill, 58, demurred, insisting that where the candidates stand on abortion and gay marriage is as important to her as their economic policies.

"Right now, Rick is the leader for me," she said of Rick Santorum, a strident social conservative who lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2006. "I want to hear about Christian values. My core is my core and I'm going to stand for that."

She is not alone. Mr. Santorum came first with 150 votes in a straw poll of 408 taken at the state party's Silver Elephant dinner on Friday. Mr. Romney trailed with 66 votes. Mr. Huntsman got only four votes.

Those are long odds for Mr. Huntsman, or any other white knight, to overcome. Not to mention icing on Mr. Obama's cake of a week.

Obama v. GOP

There isn't a Republican contender who can currently beat Barack Obama, according to polls regarding the potential presidential election matchups. These are the percentage points by which the possible GOP candidates trail Mr. Obama in polling.

4: Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor who came third in the 2008 nomination race.

4: Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor who came second to John McCain in the 2008 primaries.

8: Ron Paul, libertarian Republican congressman from Texas.

9.4: Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana.

11: Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and ambassador to China.

12: Michele Bachmann, congresswoman from Minnesota and Tea Party favourite.

13.3: Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota.

14.6: Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives

18.4: Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and vice-presidential nominee.

18.5: Donald Trump, real-estate mogul.

Source: RealClearPolitics.com

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