Bin Laden tape may help both Bush and Kerry, at the margins

It focuses attention on the terror war, a Bush strength, but is also a reminder that the Al Qaeda leader remains at large.

The timing of Osama bin Laden's late-breaking appearance on America's Friday evening newscasts seemed, at first blush, to leave little time for reflection before Tuesday's election.

Republicans, reacting privately, tended to believe the visceral reminder of the war on terror - President Bush's strongest issue - would work to their advantage. Democrats, also speaking privately, worried that this jolt had the potential to tip some undecided voters the president's way, in a race where relatively few votes in key states could determine the outcome.

If nothing else, the bin Laden tape abruptly changed the conversation, away from an issue that had put the Bush administration on the defensive all last week - Iraq's missing explosives - to one that put Bush back in comfortable territory and speaking in firm absolutes: "I will never relent in defending our country, whatever it takes,'" Bush said in a weekend campaign appearance.

But it's possible, some analysts say, that there has been time, since the tape first appeared, for swing voters to go through different stages of analysis that may ultimately lead some to settle on Sen. John Kerry's argument: that Mr. bin Laden's interjection in the race is a reminder that Bush has failed to capture the Al Qaeda leader and took his eye off the ball by invading Iraq.

"The initial release of the tape did help Bush somewhat marginally," says John Kenneth White, a political scientist at Catholic University in Washington. "But the question is, is there enough time where that also begins to work in Kerry's favor?"

Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg was halfway through interviewing for his latest poll when the bin Laden tape emerged, and so was able to insert a question Saturday for 250 of his respondents. Voters were asked which statement came closer to their view of the tape: "It makes me think that George Bush took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and diverted resources to Iraq" or "It underscores the importance of George Bush's approach to the war on terrorism." The first statement beat the second statement, 46 to 36 percent.

Other pollsters see the bin Laden factor ultimately having little impact on the final outcome of an election in which the vast majority of voters decided long ago whom they would back.

Among the undecided, "it could cut both ways," says Brad Coker, president of the Mason Dixon poll. The tape is "a reminder he's still out there, and Bush hasn't been able to get him, and a reminder he's still out there and we need a tough guy to get him. I suspect the net effect is nothing."

Some analysts say the bin Laden tape also reminded Americans that the US hasn't been attacked at home since Sept. 11, 2001, a point that could benefit the president. If the bin Laden tape is also being seen as the Al Qaeda leader engaging in his own form of early voting, then some Bush surrogates are also working hard to portray it as a vote against Bush - and that American voters aren't going to let bin Laden tell them how to vote.

"Certainly he wants George Bush out of the White House," former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Some experts on terrorism, in fact, see the tape as a ploy to help get Bush reelected. "Bin Laden knows us well enough to realize that we will take offense at him, the most reviled man in the world, criticizing our president," says a senior US intelligence official, citing statements from Al Qaeda members about how Bush has been good for their cause, in terms of recruitment and financial support.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., believes that, ultimately, bin Laden doesn't care who is the US president. But he agrees with those who see bin Laden probably preferring the current administration. "He knows his adversary now and he feels he's taken his measure," Mr. Hoffman says.

It's likely, though, that most swing voters aren't giving much detailed thought to what bin Laden wants, or are as susceptible to the black versus white rhetoric that has characterized this race. A new survey by the Pew Research Center on swing voters found they are much more likely than committed voters to say that either Bush or Kerry would make a good president. These voters tend to view both men favorably. And it's not even clear if they'll turn out at all.

Faye Bowers contributed .

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