Dan Rather's Campaign Notes

Where is Osama bin Laden? Having talked with a number of intelligence operatives, both American and otherwise, your reporter offers some guesses. They are listed in descending order of probability, as he guesses them:

1. Somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

2. Western China - that part where Muslims dominate and from where travelers can easily cross into and out of Afghanistan.

3. Kashmir, over which Pakistan and India have been engaged in a long war. Parts of the disputed province are honeycombed with Pakistani pro-Osama military and intelligence personnel.

4. Iran

5. Saudi Arabia

In the short span of time since the latest bin Laden tape was made public, Republicans generally lean to the theory that while they (rightly) abhor bin Laden's bid to intervene in the campaign, the tape's release probably helps President Bush's efforts to win re-election.

Their belief seems to be that it underscores Mr. Bush's main strength and basic campaign theme: national security. Coming as it did just before the final weekend, when many independent and swing voters traditionally make up their minds, the tape gives Republicans hope that they have an improved chance of catching that wave.

Democrats who speak publicly generally have taken a deep breath and say they think the tape may help Senator Kerry, since he has been emphasizing for some time Mr. Bush's "failure" (as Kerry sees it) to properly pursue bin Laden -- the argument being that Mr. Bush blew chances to capture bin Laden and shifted focus from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, unnecessarily and unwisely.

Privately, some Democrats say that on balance, if the new tape makes any difference, that difference is mostly likely shaded to Mr. Bush's advantage.

What difference -- if any -- the bin Laden business makes, this we know: During the last weekend before a presidential election, there usually is a shift among independents and swing voters.

Sometimes it has been great (to Reagan in 1980, to Carter in 1976); sometimes not so big (slightly to Nixon in 1968, slightly to Kennedy in 1960). But it usually happens. In a race as close as this one apparently is any shift -- however slight -- over this weekend might very well be decisive.

Before the bin Laden tape, Democrats seemed confident their man would get the shift, while Republicans seemed wary and worried. Justifiably or not, Republicans now have their hopes up. Democrats are suddenly more in, "Well, let's wait and see" mode.

In the end, who knows? We may or may not know more about what, if any, difference the tape made after Tuesday's votes are counted and final exit polls are analyzed.

Such things frequently are difficult to dope out when they happen this late in a campaign.

There are a lot of people in both parties who are unconvinced the bin Laden tape, in the end, will make any difference.

Hunches grow in both presidential camps that the race may come down to Wisconsin and Iowa. Both states are rated toss-ups. Combined electoral votes of 17 (10 for Wisconsin, 7 for Iowa). But hunches abound. A New Mexico and Nevada school of hunch thought is also popular.

A close election is certainly indicated by the polls. There is, however, the possibility that it won't wind up being tick-tight all the way to the end.

President Bush may wind up winning comfortably if not overwhelmingly. Ditto Kerry. There are so many early in-person voters in states that allow them, and so may absentee ballots in all states this time, together with so many newly registered voters, that the situation is ripe for the "oh, so close" polls to be proven wrong.

By Dan Rather