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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Bin Laden Video Adds Fuel to the Partisan Fire

Democrats say Bush missed the chance to seize the terrorist leader. Republicans say the tape shifts voters' focus in the president's favor.

October 30, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

After the briefest pause in hostilities, aides to President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry seized on the new videotape of Osama bin Laden to launch a fierce round of attacks -- each accusing the other Friday of exploiting the reemergence of the terrorist leader for political gain.

"You would think there would be maybe 12 hours to let the American people absorb this," said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, after Kerry reiterated his criticism of Bush for failing to capture Bin Laden in the months following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"It's offensive and shameful for this president to play politics the way he did today with this issue," retorted Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry strategist, after Bush assailed his Democratic rival for his remarks.

The exchange underscored the uncertainty introduced into the White House race by the late October surprise of the Bin Laden tape and the scramble to capitalize on it -- or contain any potential political harm it might cause.

For all the anticipation of a last-minute campaign surprise -- most of it focused on another terrorist attack -- both sides appeared flummoxed at first when Bin Laden intruded on an otherwise routine, if intense, campaign day.

Like so much else in this bitterly fought campaign, partisans split over its probable impact.

Republicans, some openly gleeful, saw the Bin Laden tape as helping Bush and hurting Kerry. Democrats, less assuredly, suggested the opposite.

More-neutral observers said the effect of the tape depended on how voters processed the news over the final days of the neck-and-neck presidential race.

Most analysts thought it would aid Bush, at the least, by changing the subject from stolen Iraqi weapons, doctored campaign ads and other developments that had thrown the president on the defensive for the last few days.

"We'll have to see whether it completely displaces the 300 tons of weapons missing from the bunker in Iraq," said Garry South, a Democratic strategist unaffiliated with the Kerry campaign.

Others suggested that opinions were so firmly fixed at this late stage of the race that Bin Laden resurfacing may not significantly change the race's dynamic.

"We have become so divided in terms of partisanship that each side will read what they want into [Bin Laden's] statement," said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.

"What Republicans are thinking is: This puts the focus back on terrorism," Squire said. "And the people supporting Kerry say this shows Bin Laden is alive and well three years after we said we were going to get him. Each side will see it the way they want to see it."

Kerry's response to the tape evolved as the hours passed. Moments after he learned about it, he emphasized that the country was "united in our determination to hunt down and kill the terrorists." But he also reiterated a frequent criticism that the president let Bin Laden get away.

"I regret that when George Bush had the opportunity in Afghanistan and Tora Bora, he didn't choose to use American forces to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden," Kerry said in a satellite interview with the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee.

Later, speaking to reporters on the tarmac in West Palm Beach, Fla., Kerry issued a short statement emphasizing the country's unity and his commitment to fighting terrorism.

"Let me just make it clear -- crystal clear," he said. "As Americans, we are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists."

The president's approach also changed as the day wore on, in reverse fashion from Kerry's.

At first, he was statesmanlike. Speaking at Toledo's airport, en route to a Columbus, Ohio, appearance with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a grim-faced Bush read a brief, sober statement declaring: "Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country."

"I'm sure Sen. Kerry agrees with this," Bush added.

But the president's tone soon shifted. "My opponent continues to say things he knows are not true," Bush told the crowd in Columbus. "It's especially shameful in light of the new tape from America's enemy."

The Bush campaign followed up with a lengthy e-mail mocking Kerry and his criticism of the president. "Tora Bora," the statement began, " ... He was for the strategy before he was against it."

The Kerry campaign responded with a hastily scheduled conference call with Lockhart, who said the Democrat leveled his attack before he learned of the content of the Bin Laden tape.

Without backing away from Kerry's criticism, he indicated that the senator later thought a less political tone was appropriate.

Some Republicans suggested the tape would ensure Bush's reelection Tuesday.

"I can't fathom an interpretation where this hurts the president and helps John Kerry," said Q. Whitfield Ayres, a veteran GOP strategist. "Anything that keeps the focus on the war on terror helps President Bush and hurts Sen. Kerry."

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