Terrorist Tape, Political Angst

By ADAM NAGOURNEY

New York Times

October 31, 2004

MIAMI, Oct. 30 - The latest surprise of this campaign arrived less than 100 hours before Election Day, in the form of Osama bin Laden's videotaped message to America. Even Democrats described it as somewhat welcome news for President Bush after a difficult stretch for the White House.

Yes, as some Democrats said, voters were reminded that Mr. bin Laden was healthy and alive, three years after Mr. Bush declared he wanted him "dead or alive," and in the midst of a campaign in which Mr. Kerry had systematically assailed Mr. Bush as allowing his Iraq war to distract from the more lethal threat of Mr. bin Laden.

But there were signs of concern in Mr. Kerry's circles as this campaign took yet another sharp turn in response to events far from Washington. While the candidate's first reaction to the tape was to repeat his standing criticism that Mr. Bush had allowed Mr. bin Laden to escape in the hills of Tora Bora, Kerry aides have said they would just as soon change the topic.

But on Saturday, while avoiding the mention of the tape itself, Mr. Kerry found himself battling with the president about the best way to protect America against terrorism.

The attempt by the Kerry campaign to play down the topic came as no surprise.

The videotape - in which Mr. bin Laden taunts the president and makes vaguely threatening remarks about the nation's security - could well reinforce what has been the defining rationale of Mr. Bush's re-election candidacy since the morning that planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: that the nation is at war, and that this Republican son of a president can best protect it.

"The more these images are out there now, the more it helps Bush," said Joe Trippi, who was the campaign manager for Howard Dean, one of Mr. Kerry's rivals for the Democratic nomination.

"Every American wants to keep this fight out of the country, and that has been the hallmark of the Bush campaign."

While it seems inevitable that Mr. bin Laden will dominate much of the closing act of this campaign, it is still an open question just how many votes this could sway here or in the other eight swing states where the campaign is being played out in these final hours.

For one thing, the tape was released late on a Friday afternoon, a time when experienced American politicians typically try to sneak out news they do not want to gain much notice (a practice that Mr. bin Laden is presumably unaware of). By now, undecided voters are as scarce as Mr. bin Laden once was: on this late October weekend, the contest is less about swaying undecided voters than about getting supporters to the polls.

And Mr. Bush is certainly vulnerable on this issue, should Mr. Kerry try to turn the tables back on his rival.

"This is going to be the last nail in George Bush's campaign,'' said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist working for America Coming Together, a group working to unseat Mr. Bush. "Bin Laden on the loose is arguably Bush's greatest failure as commander in chief."

That said, here in a state at the heart of the presidential battle, the images of Mr. bin Laden speaking ominously into a camera blended seamlessly with Republican advertisements that include the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center, or Mr. Bush comforting the daughter of a Sept. 11 victim.

In this final weekend of a long contest, the campaign appeared to have turned full circle to the moment that has defined Mr. Bush's presidency and shaped his re-election campaign.

Richard N. Bond, a former Republican national chairman, said the tape was a "reminder for all Americans that America is under attack - and who can be the best commander in chief in the war on terror is the central issue of this campaign."

Mr. bin Laden may have managed to do what the White House had not been able to accomplish: turn the page on what had been a troubling run of news for Mr. Bush, ranging from reports of missing explosives from an unsecured warehouse in Iraq to more sluggish economic news.

These events had provided fuel for a steady barrage of attacks by Mr. Kerry and his running mate, Senator John Edwards, this week and have - or had - increasingly left Mr. Bush on the defensive.

That is no small thing. At this point in a campaign, command of the political agenda is critical, and until 4 p.m. on Friday, Mr. Kerry held that. Going into this weekend, confidence in Democratic circles, if cautious, was as palpable as the anxiety in Republican circles.

Mr. Bush, who has never been shy about using the attacks of Sept. 11 to his political advantage, moved quickly to incorporate the videotape into his re-election campaign. On Friday night, in Ohio, he called Mr. Kerry "shameful" for saying that he had let Mr. bin Laden escape in the mountains of Pakistan, an argument Mr. Kerry has in fact been making for two years. Mr. Kerry's advisers reacted with sharp agitation to the Bush charge.

A senior aide, Joe Lockhart, denounced Mr. Bush as having politicized the 9/11 tragedy.

Another senior Kerry aide, Mike McCurry, made it clear in an interview that Mr. Kerry had no intention of using these last hours of his campaign to talk about Mr. bin Laden.

"I think there's going to be a real reaction if news organizations try to make this the only story for the last few days," he said. "There's a lot at stake in this election. There's going to be a lot of visible anger at the American media if this is the story for the whole weekend."

But Mr. Bush has never made any secret about what he wanted this campaign to be about. His senior political adviser, Karl Rove, flatly announced that security would be a central theme of the 2002 midterm elections at a meeting of the Republican National Committee just four months after the attacks.

Terrorism is one of a very few issues on which the president has a clear advantage over Mr. Kerry. And after enduring a week of bad news, Mr. Bush's aides could barely restrain their enthusiasm at what they hoped would be the coda of this campaign - as opposed to, say, the images of a scavenged weapons depot in Iraq.

"When people look at that guy, they understand that we are at war," said Mr. Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, referring to Mr. bin Laden. "And they want to make sure that their commander in chief does."

More than any campaign in 20 years, this one has repeatedly been buffeted by events beyond the control of either candidate. But nothing has shaped it more than Mr. bin Laden and the attacks he orchestrated three Septembers ago. It has presented what has always been the central challenge for the Democrats: Could they compete with Mr. Bush on national security?

With all his "bring it ons" and Vietnam talk, Mr. Kerry may have thought he had vaulted that hurdle. Mr. bin Laden's weekend re-emergence will put that to a final test.