The dramatic capture of Saddam Hussein grabbed America's attention Sunday morning - sending a wave of elation through the White House, forcing the Democratic presidential candidates to pivot quickly on a central campaign theme, and giving the American people a moment's pause from their Sunday morning rituals.
At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the mood was one of joyous relief at a long-hoped-for moment of catharsis. Amid all the criticism of the Iraq occupation, here was some indisputable good news that could bear directly on the US ability to turn over control of Iraq to the Iraqis.
Politics did not rest, as one by one, the Democratic candidates churned out statements congratulating American forces for the skilled capture, and then attempting to shift the focus to the longer-term challenges ahead.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), whose candidacy has struggled, sharply went after Democratic front-runner Howard Dean on NBC's "Meet the Press." When asked whether Hussein's capture was bad for Dean, Senator Lieberman responded, "It should be. If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, not in prison, and the world would be a much more dangerous place."
The news makes Monday's long-planned foreign-policy speeches by Dr. Dean and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York all the more important. For Dean, it is a signal moment to flesh out policies in a realm where critics call him weak. Though his opposition to the war gave early animus to his campaign, Democratic observers, including supporters, agree that the time has come for him to elaborate on the range of foreign-policy matters.
The coincidence of Senator Clinton's speech - from a central Democratic leader who long figured in speculation about possible presidential ambitions - is likely to highlight different strains of thought within the party about Iraq and foreign policy. Clinton has represented a more hawkish point of view on Iraq than has Dean.
Around the country, Americans were delighted that a tyrant who'd tortured so many could be brought to justice. Independent pollster John Zogby predicts President Bush will get a bump in polls, but the spike will drift back down.
"As things settle to reality, those sort-of leaning Democrats, sort-of liberals, who jump over to the other side when there's something like this, always seem to come back," says Mr. Zogby. "This won't change anything even in the medium haul, let alone the long haul."
For most people, judging by street interviews in Chicago; Sumter, S.C.; and Raleigh, N.C.; the news Sunday morning commanded attention - but didn't seem to sway previously held views on the Iraq war.
"I woke up and thought I was dreaming," said Mary Featherston, a retired Ameritech worker in Chicago, on her way to mass amid the fresh snowfall. "I turned on Channel 5. I was like, 'Is this for real?' " Asked how she felt, she teared up: "I'm glad. I just hope this means no more of our guys are going to get killed over there." [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mary Featherston's name.]
Over at Chicago's Intelligentsia Café, Bruce Stewart and John Artusa, one a retired teacher, the other a retired accountant, largely agreed. "I'm delighted he's captured," said Mr. Stewart. "On the other hand, this doesn't change anything for me at all. The war is still a wrong thing for me."
Added Mr. Artusa: "They didn't say we're going there to get a bad guy. They went for other reasons that still haven't been justified.... The whole presentation of reasons for going to war weren't what they're turning out to be now: capturing a bad person."
Bradley Gray, a professor in the school of public health at the University of illinois at Chicago, on his way to get coffee, said his first reaction was that Hussein looked like the "reincarnation of Jerry Garcia." Then he got more serious: "I think it's going to help Bush," he said. "I think the Democrats made a mistake by putting up all these mile markers that were easy for Bush to turn around in the short run, and [the failure to capture Hussein] was one of them."
At the Jehovah Missionary Baptist Church in Sumter, S.C., where Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dick Gephardt appeared Sunday, Lottie Spencer was "joyful" at the news. "I was praying to God to please catch him," she said. "This is a blessing. They know they're free now." She thought the news would help Bush some, but "he's really going to have to get those jobs.... Jobs are really the important thing."
In Raleigh, Albert Moore, the deacon of Christ Church, greeted smiling parishioners and recalled his wife's last words as he left the house: "They got Saddam."
"I'm very happy," said Joe Harris, a Raleigh house framer leaving the church in a drizzly rain. "After all, a lot of Iraqis were saying that if the US pulled out of Iraq [without capturing Hussein], that Saddam would come back."
There's no chance of that now.
Indeed, after so much American effort in the war-ravaged region - and so much investment in dethroning Hussein - the news allowed some to gloat: "He said he was going to go out fighting 'til the end and instead they find him at the bottom of a rat hole," said Gerald Bagwell, the owner of Bagwell's gas station in rural east Raleigh.
For others, the capture is a clear boon to Mr. Bush. "Saddam is an evil man, and the President deserves a lot of credit for capturing him," said Robert Fowler, a former Navy man and retired dairy farmer. "But I don't think it'll stop the harping."
Others simply hoped that the capture would mean the beginning of a lasting peace in the region. "I just hope this means our troops will be coming home sooner rather than later," said Deacon Moore.
• Patrik Jonsson in Raleigh, Liz Marlantes in South Carolina, and Amanda Paulson in Chicago contributed.