In the wake of Saturday's attempted assassination of an Arizona congresswoman, the task of finding -- and calibrating -- a response commensurate with the solemn occasion is one that is facing not only President Barack Obama but also his would-be 2012 challengers.
It's a delicate exercise and one that is revealing much about many Republicans in contention for their party's 2012 nomination.
Their widely divergent reactions -- from Tim Pawlenty's subtle distancing from his beleaguered rival, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; to her virtual disappearance; to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's feeding of the right-wing base -- are telling for what they show about the pols' potential roles in the GOP field and their distinctive political temperaments.
Perhaps, surprisingly, it is Pawlenty, the mild-mannered former Minnesota governor, who has arguably come out looking the best.
The tragedy occurred as Pawlenty was preparing to embark on a book tour to promote his new memoir, which was released Tuesday. That meant he already had plenty of previously scheduled bookings for television interviews and print profiles.
Thus, Pawlenty couldn't be accused of seeking the spotlight to raise his political profile, which would have been distasteful. But he couldn't avoid the topic either.
His take on the shooting was common-sensical and somber. He told ABC News on Tuesday that, while "we could all benefit from a more civil and thoughtful discourse in this country," there's no evidence the incident was anything other than a "senseless" act by a "mentally unstable person."
The comment that made all of the headlines, though, was his implicit criticism of rival Palin, whose target map of 2010 congressional races, with a cross hairs icon aimed at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's (D-Ariz.) district, has inflamed many on the left.
"It's not a device I would have chosen to [use]," Pawlenty told The New York Times. "Everybody has got their own style or different approaches."
As rhetorical slaps go, it was a gentle one, but it allowed Pawlenty to subtly differentiate himself from his better-known, more polarizing potential competitor. And he navigated the narrow passage between a full-throated defense of Palin's confrontational tactics and a sharp criticism that might have alienated her legion of conservative supporters.
Palin, for her part, has practically gone underground since posting a message of sympathy for the victims on her Facebook page and removing the target map from her website. On Monday, radio and TV host Glenn Beck read an e-mail she sent him: "I hate violence. I hate war. Our children will not have peace if politicos just capitalize on this to succeed in portraying anyone as inciting terror and violence."
Fair or not, Palin has been a major theme of discussion in the wake of the shooting. Attempts to tamp down speculation, such as an adviser's claim that the cross hairs on the map were really surveyors' symbols, have only served to make the blame on Palin flare up. And so she seems to be lying low.
"I don't think there's any upside for her" said GOP consultant John Feehery. "The more she says she's not to blame, the more she gets associated with it. She ought to let this blow over rather than trying to prove a negative, which is impossible to do."
By timing or by design, many 2012-ers have stayed out of the raging fray over the meaning of -- and the blame for -- the Tucson, Ariz., massacre that killed six and injured 14.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been in Afghanistan and the Middle East since Friday, putting him largely out of range of queries about the incident. His only remark on the topic has been a statement of condolences. Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota has, likewise, limited his comments to a prepared statement of sympathy.
Gov. Mitch Daniels and Rep. Mike Pence, both Republicans from Indiana, made similar remarks to The Indianapolis Star. Daniels said the "level of discourse on both sides in this country" is "jeopardizing the kind of coming together that we have to have." Meanwhile, Pence commented that blaming rhetoric for a madman's actions "could very easily inhibit our freedoms going forward."
For the right-wing base, this tepid, cautious equivocating might leave much to be desired. Incensed at what they see as a liberal rush to pin the shooting on the tea party and conservative rhetoric, some on the right are aching for a champion to stand up to the force of liberal bias.
Enter Gingrich, who came out swinging on a Chicago radio show.
"People who would immediately scream about ethnic profiling, people who, on the left, have every possible incentive to never allow anyone to draw conclusions suddenly say things that are just factually untrue," Gingrich said. "There's no evidence that I know of that this person was anything except nuts."
Gingrich also pointed to what he said is evidence that the shooter, Jared Loughner, is, if anything, a liberal.
"Certainly, the books that he had in his library tended to be left wing, much more Marxist and communist," Gingrich said. "He was, apparently, an atheist. He was, by no standard that I know of -- had any connection with any tea party of any kind."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tossed even more red meat to the base, commenting on the tragedy at length on his radio show, "The Huckabee Report," on Monday and Tuesday.
Huckabee lashed out at "left-wing politicians" and the media for their rush to blame Loughner's actions on Palin and the tea party. "His favorite video shows a burning American flag. That doesn't sound like any tea partiers I know," Huckabee said. He added, "How about this for incendiary: falsely accusing innocent political opponents of promoting mass murder even before you know the facts."
Huckabee had a pungent description for the shooter.
"It took some in the media months to finally acknowledge, if ever, that the Fort Hood shootings were the result of an Army officer who was an Islamic jihadist and committed an act of terror," he said. "But it only took them minutes to falsely decide that the whack job nut maggot who cowardly shot the congresswoman, the little girl who wanted to be in politics, a federal judge and others was driven by talk radio."
Feehery said rants like Huckabee's and Gingrich's "don't make them look presidential. If you want to be a talk-show pundit, it's fine, but what the country wants right now is class, civility and a modicum of decency."
The candidates would all be better served by staying out of discussions of the tragedy and trying to "avoid looking gratuitously political," he said.