WASHINGTON (AP) — A health care speech by Mitt Romney and a formal announcement that Newt Gingrich is running mark a turn toward the substantive in the Republican presidential race.
The change can't happen too soon for the GOP after a series of events that did little to suggest the party is ready to take on President Barack Obama, who is now benefiting politically from the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The Donald Trump-for-president boomlet that overshadowed the candidates is going if not gone, and a televised debate in South Carolina that several GOP hopefuls skipped is history.
The polls indicate that even the Republican rank and file is less than enthused about the party's potential contenders, although they are unhappy, as is the rest of the electorate, about 9 percent national unemployment and $4-a-gallon gasoline.
Not even the party's national chairman, Reince Priebus, could hide his annoyance at Trump's signature issue, the persistent questioning of Obama's country of birth.
"I don't think it's an issue that moves voters. It's an issue that I, personally, don't get too excited about," Priebus said at one point.
The debate in South Carolina was somewhat sparsely attended — by the candidates. Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty participated.
A businessman who has never held office and a black man in a party that is overwhelmingly white, Cain was widely judged to have helped himself. If so, it came at the expense of the professional politicians on stage in the state that will hold the first southern primary in 2012.
Romney and Gingrich, both certain to run, stayed home.
Nor were Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin or Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann there. All are considering candidacies.
A former state party chairman, Henry McMaster, tried to look on the bright side.
"These are mostly new faces," he said of those who debated. "That's what we need to see. We've seen the old faces."
Priebus said the debate was early in the campaign, suggesting that was a reason so many had skipped it.
"This is the beginning of the debate, but as we all know there are numerous other candidates who are looking at it, and thank God, because we have a country that needs to be straightened out and we have an economy that we need to get back on track," Priebus said.
Until recently, these events took place in something of a political vacuum, with the economy beginning to produce jobs but the country still struggling to emerge from the Great Recession. Obama grappled with a string of foreign crises.
The political landscape changed 10 days ago, though, when bin Laden was killed in Pakistan and the president embarked on what amounted to a week-long national victory lap.
A dramatic Sunday night announcement at the White House, a stop at ground zero in New York City and a visit to Fort Campbell in Kentucky led into a network television interview deemed so positive that the president's campaign emailed supporters urging them to watch.
"Justice has been done," Obama said in announcing bin Laden's death after a decade on the run. The spontaneous celebrations that broke out near the White House, in New York and on college campuses that night were a prelude to at least a temporary rise in Obama's poll numbers.
Voters may well see those images again in the fall of 2012.
Against that backdrop, a health care speech by Romney and Gingrich's three-day announcement tour on social media, television and in person hardly count as game changers.
Yet because of their experience, fundraising potential and stature within the party, both men have legitimate chances to win the nomination, and their public appearances in the next few days suggest the race is becoming more serious.
Romney's speech Thursday in Michigan is designed to surmount an obvious difficulty. As governor of Massachusetts, he sought and signed a health care bill that requires state residents to purchase health care. It's a forerunner of Obama's individual mandate that Republicans loathe.
Gingrich, 67, isn't without difficulties of his own in a party in which social conservatives and tea party activists hold power.
He is married for a third time. As speaker of a Republican-controlled House more than a decade ago, he made the sort of deals that current conservative activists say they disdain: creation of a new health care benefit program as part of a balanced budget agreement with President Bill Clinton, for example.
Yet it's unlikely that either man will spend much time speculating this week about the country of Obama's birth.
And any praise of the president for the take-down of bin Laden is likely to be perfunctory.
"While any job creation is good news, the mixed results of today's jobs report is further proof that America needs a profound change of course in its economic policies," Gingrich wrote on his Facebook page recently.
"Across the nation, over 20 million Americans still can't find a job, or have given up looking. ... President Obama's policies have failed," Romney says on his campaign-in-waiting website.
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo covers politics for The Associated Press.