WASHINGTON — Once again, phenomena beyond the control of George Bush and John Kerry are crowding campaign messages off the nation's TV screens.
Though flags remain at half-staff for the late President Reagan, TV airtime is now dominated by the images of two other larger-than-life men - former President Clinton and documentary-maker Michael Moore.
Clinton's just-released memoirs, titled "My Life," are flying off bookstore shelves - several hundred thousand in the first 24 hours - as fans of the 42nd president drive hundreds of miles and wait in line for hours for his autograph. Political analysts are still parsing the ex-president's appearances on "60 Minutes" and other TV shows.
Mr. Moore, the controversial filmmaker, is lobbing his biggest political bomb yet: the release Friday of his film "Fahrenheit 9/11," which he calls an "op-ed" on President Bush and the war in Iraq, aimed at helping defeat the president in November.
Who noticed that Senator Kerry, the Democratic challenger for the presidency, flew 3,910 miles on Tuesday to cast a vote in Washington on veterans' healthcare - and then didn't get to vote after all, because of procedural delays? Or that Bush delivered a major speech on AIDS in Philadelphia Wednesday?
Much more important for both Kerry and Bush is whether the Clinton and Moore releases will have any long-lasting effect on the highly polarized race for the White House. Of the two, analysts say, the Moore film has the better shot: It is aimed directly at the current administration's policy, not the slightly more distant past of the Clinton years. The crucial question is whether any of the remaining undecided voters - by some analyses only 1 percent of the electorate - will be swayed by Moore's attack.
Moore himself, in a New York Times interview, says that focus groups of undecided voters in Michigan (a battleground state) were shown the film in April and came away ready to vote against Bush.
But will undecided voters, particularly in the 17 states where the presidential race is effectively tied, pay good money to see the movie?
Most political observers think not. "Who's going to go? People who want to see Moore take on Bush and the war on terror, and people who want to go so they can walk out!" says Martin Johnson, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside. "If anything, it will heighten the divisions and promote activism among the already-decideds."
Further, he adds, the film - which claims that Bush stole the election in 2000, failed to protect the nation from foreseeable attacks in 2001, and has made the nation less secure by invading Iraq - could inspire supporters of independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader above all else. Mr. Nader has opposed the Iraq operation from the start, in contrast with Kerry, whose position lies much closer to Bush's.
With more than four months to go before the election, undecided voters characteristically aren't paying much attention to politics, even though a recent Pew poll shows greater-than-usual attention among voters at this point in a presidential race.
But even if casual voters are unwilling to pay to see "Fahrenheit 9/11" - or fork over $35 to read Bill Clinton's memoirs - the ubiquity of Moore and Clinton on TV could seep into the undecideds' consciousness anyway.
"The question is, does this spike their attention?" asks Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which has researched undecided voters. "It's possible you get a free media effect out of it. But they're not usually paying attention to free media, so it's not likely they'd say, 'Oh boy, a Clinton interview!' "
Some Bush supporters aren't taking any chances. A California-based organization called Move America Forward is rallying pro-Bush forces to try to persuade movie theaters not to screen the film.
"We believe that there is a very real threat from foreign enemies who want to hurt our country so we want to support our troops and our effort," says Siobhan Guiney, executive director of Move America Forward. "We also feel there are domestic enemies, and one of them is Michael Moore's movie 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' "
Ms. Guiney does not believe her group is helping Moore by giving the film even more publicity. The buzz began when Disney refused to distribute it, and then escalated when it won the top prize at the Cannes International Film Festival last month. "What we're doing is making sure there's an alternative voice to Michael Moore's military-bashing propaganda," Guiney adds.
Moore is fighting back. He has set up a "war room" to fight attacks on the film's veracity, and hired a team of lawyers to defend himself and the film. On Tuesday, Moore lost his battle to rate the movie PG-13. With an R rating, children under 17 will not be allowed to see it without an adult.
If there's any effect at all, the Clinton-Moore eclipse would likely aid Kerry more than Bush.
Nothing's a sure thing for the Massachusetts Democrat, though. "My Life" refreshes memories of Clinton's sex-and-lying scandal, and could diminish his value as a surrogate campaigner for Kerry. On the other hand, Clinton's charisma on the trail - at least as seen by his supporters - could serve as an unwelcome contrast to Kerry's more aloof, formal style.
The good news for both Kerry and Bush is that it's only early summer, and by November the nation will have moved on to other things.
"No one's going to remember things in June come October," says independent pollster Del Ali. "And undecided voters aren't going to make up their minds now. You'll start seeing that after Labor Day."