Voters, Their Minds Made Up, Say bin Laden Changes Nothing

By KIRK JOHNSON

New York Times

October 31, 2004

DENVER, Oct. 31 - If Osama bin Laden imagined, in releasing a threatening new videotape days before the presidential election, that he could sway the votes of Kerry supporters like David and Jan Hill and Bush supporters like Paul Christene, he has another thing coming.

"We're dug in," said Ms. Hill, an accountant in Denver who said she would vote for Senator John Kerry. "People I know are so polarized, it doesn't make any difference."

Her husband, a musician, added that having been subjected to a constant barrage of commercials from the candidates, and a flood of news reports about the election, the bin Laden tape was just another note in the cacophony. "I don't think people are really responding anymore," he said. "We're shellshocked."

Many supporters of President Bush seemed equally unfazed.

"It doesn't have anything to do with the election," said Mr. Christene, an aircraft supervisor from Walford, Iowa. "I will stick with Bush."

In dozens of interviews on Friday and Saturday in five hotly contested states, such steely sentiments were echoed again and again. Supporters of Mr. Bush said the bin Laden tape had strengthened their resolve to vote Republican by reminding them of the grave threats still faced by the country, while Mr. Kerry's supporters said the tape was yet another reminder that the Bush administration had failed to catch Mr. bin Laden. Even the undecided said the tape would not influence their decision.

Indeed, with passions raised to such a pitch by this election, and with many people already committed to their choices, Mr. bin Laden and his blustering postures may have achieved a strange and remarkable feat: making himself irrelevant, despite the analysis of some political operatives that his tape could affect the election, to Mr. Bush's benefit in particular. [Page 28.]

Many people said that while Mr. bin Laden remained a potent symbol, the issues raised by the election were bigger than one man, and that Mr. bin Laden's words, at this point, would not make any difference in how things turned out on Tuesday.

The snapshot of opinion is hardly scientific and could reflect what some people thought was the proper answer. But it may alleviate concerns that voters could be driven toward the Bush camp by Mr. bin Laden's message - or to the Kerry camp by the fact that he is still free.

The voting decision, people said over and over, has already been made.

"It's more of the same, basically, about what you'd expect from this group," said Rex Reeve of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He said the tape would not change his mind a bit: "I'll definitely be voting for Bush."

Some people, interviewed in bars and parks and downtown city streets, said they thought that in the secret cloister of the voting booth, there might be people - the undecided or the less firmly committed - who could be affected by the bin Laden message, or the candidates' response to the message. But it was hard to find anyone who thought that would happen to him or her. And for every person who concluded that Mr. bin Laden was trying to push people toward voting for Mr. Kerry, there was another who thought the intention was to help re-elect Mr. Bush.

Of the few undecided voters found by reporters roving through five cities, none said the tape had tipped the balance.

Veronica Gonzalez of St. Paul said that the tape certainly scared her, but that she did not know whether Mr. bin Laden's words might influence her vote.

"He's a bad person," she said. "It's very scary. I might vote for Bush, but I haven't decided."

Tyler Lisenbee, a property manager from Denver who was fishing with his 10-year-old daughter, Rachel, in a lake at a downtown park, said that he voted for Mr. Bush in 2000 but was leaning toward Mr. Kerry, mainly because of the war in Iraq. The bin Laden tape, he said, has not helped him make a choice.

"Bush has been in office all this time, and Osama is still running around," Mr. Lisenbee said. "I don't know if Kerry can do a better job, but maybe it's worth trying somebody new."

Mr. Lisenbee said he thought Mr. bin Laden would not affect the election at all, "unless if they catch him in the next few days - then I'd probably vote for Bush."

Some people said that how the bin Laden message filtered through the campaigns in the final days - in other words, what sort of spin was applied to it by politicians - would probably be more important than the message itself.

Cheryl Hecksler, a teacher and Kerry supporter in Las Vegas, said she had received a call from her mother in San Marcos, Calif., saying "something about bin Laden."

"I couldn't hear very well on the cellphone, and I thought he'd been captured," Ms. Hecksler said.

While she wanted Mr. bin Laden apprehended, she said she worried about what effect that might have had on Tuesday. "I was panicked," she said. "My first reaction was that Bush would win overwhelmingly.

"Then she told me about the tape, that bin Laden looked rested, like he'd been on a Caribbean vacation," Ms. Hecksler said. "Why is this coming out now?" Quite a few people said they had already voted. But none had any regrets in light of the videotape.

Brian Clark, a government worker who lives two hours south of Little Rock, Ark., said he had already voted for Mr. Bush. "That's just the party affiliation I vote for," he said. "I'm just conservative, and it's like, anybody but Kerry."

Other people said the main thing that puzzled them was not what Mr. bin Laden said, but when he said it.

"All I can say is, wow, it's perfect timing for him to come out of the woodwork," said McKinley Olds, 33, a warehouse worker in Cleveland. "It doesn't make any difference to me, I'm still voting for Kerry."

Another Kerry supporter in Ohio, Ruth Twaddell, 53, a mental health therapist in Chagrin Falls, said that she worried mainly about the fear that might play out in other voters' minds. She said the tape made no difference to her.

"This raises people's fears, and Bush preys upon their insecurities," said Ms. Twaddell. "I don't feel personally fearful, but I know there's plenty of people for whom it's in the forefront of their minds."

Other people debated Mr. bin Laden's intent. Some were convinced that he wanted four more years of Mr. Bush, others that he wanted Mr. Kerry to be elected.

"For people who are on the margin, it helps Bush, because it resurrects the fear that something might happen - and I think that was the obvious intention," said Jeff Sanders, a petroleum engineer in Denver who supports Mr. Kerry. "What bin Laden is afraid of is Kerry's ability to create an international coalition that would really deal with terrorism."

For both Bush and Kerry supporters, the undisputed fact was that Mr. bin Laden was still out there. The question, many people said, was what that fact meant to Americans.

On Friday evening on the Las Vegas Strip, Ron Blake paused and said he admired Mr. bin Laden's gall.

"They've spent all this time looking for the guy and here he pops up, none the worse for wear," said Mr. Blake, a construction worker from Crestline, Calif., who was visiting Las Vegas with his wife, Jennifer, and infant daughter, Stephanie. "After all was said and done, we didn't get him. He's very savvy. I don't think he should be underestimated. He's like a rattlesnake in a cage - be careful, he could strike."

Scott Nelson, a real estate broker from Salt Lake City, said Mr. bin Laden was "just trying to influence the election against Bush."

"He's very good at using free publicity via the media to get his point across," said Mr. Nelson, strolling on the Strip with his wife, Debbie. "He's got to do that to keep his work going. And by doing this, he also contacts his contributors in this country, his people."

Some people said that Mr. bin Laden, perhaps in keeping with his elusive nature as the most hunted man on the planet, had become a kind of cipher - a blank screen onto which people could project what they already believed about the candidates, the war against terrorism and the nation's future.

"People are so partisan and so biased - I think this is just going to reinforce what they already believe," said Frank Scardina, a pastor in Denver who said that he would vote for Mr. Bush.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Diane Cardwell in Little Rock, Ark.; Ford Fessenden in Cleveland; Nick Madigan in Las Vegas; and Michael Moss in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.