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Who Will 'Osama Surprise' Help?

By David Paul Kuhn, chief political writer

Most experts are downplaying the potential impact on the presidential election of the new Osama bin Laden videotape. But they largely agree that if it does assist either candidate, it is more likely to be President Bush than Democrat John Kerry.

At first blush, the airing of the videotape looked to belie the effectiveness of Mr. Bush's war on terrorism, because it reminded Americans that bin Laden is alive, and seemingly well.

Democrats insist this remains true.

But as the weekend progressed -- as the bin Laden video led network newscasts and cable news and appeared on top-of-the-fold of newspapers in key battleground states -- the sense among most experts was that the tape played to Mr. Bush's strength: the war on terrorism.

"To the degree that it has an effect at all, it would be to the degree that clearly terrorism is George Bush's issue," said Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at the Brookings Institution and a Republican. "After this truly overheated campaign, months of this campaign, the poll figures on who you feel safer with in the war on terrorism, basically, haven't changed."

Even when Kerry's poll numbers improved following a strong performance at the presidential debates, Mr. Bush performed better on terrorism. According to a CBS News poll in mid-October, the voters viewed Mr. Bush as the candidate best able to protect the nation from terrorism by a margin of 43-30 percent.

Cornell University sociologist Robb Willer has found that Mr. Bush's approval rating from 2001 to 2004 increased an average of 2.75 percentage points following a terror warning. The terror alert has not been raised so far, but federal officials have issued a bulletin that urges state and local authorities to be extra vigilant.

"Focusing on the threats helps Bush at the margins," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and a conservative. "At this point, everything at the margins makes a difference. But," Ornstein added, "I don't think this has the rally effect a terrorist attack would."

First shown by Al-Jazeera, the videotape came after a week dominated by the war in Iraq. News last Monday of 377 tons of highly explosive material looted from a munitions complex, apparently left unguarded by U.S. troops, put Mr. Bush on the defensive during final week of the campaign.

But experts now expect the bin Laden tape to shift the topic to the larger war on terrorism.

"This is Bush's issue; it dramatized Bush's issue. That's the upside for the president," said Joseph Nye, a political scientist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a liberal. "The downside is that it is a failure on this issue, rather than a success on the issue."

Unlike others interviewed, Nye said the videotape could serve to Kerry's advantage by undermining Mr. Bush's effectives in leading the war on terrorism.

"I think it helps Kerry slightly, in the sense that it dramatizes one of these issues, which is that Bush has not accomplished what he set out to accomplish in terms of catching bin Laden," Nye continued. "But Kerry has to be careful how he plays it so that it doesn't look like it is so political that it leads to a backlash against him."

At the very least, bin Laden's "October surprise" has soared to the top of the campaign agenda. In the three largest swing states – Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio – the bin Laden videotape topped the states' largest newspapers.

But presidential historian Hess believes Americans will make an effort to keep the videotape from prejudicing their vote. Hess also questions how many voters still can be influenced only a few days before the election.

"It's a long standing, almost a tenant of American elections that we deeply resent the intrusion of any outsiders," he said. "But this is an election that has been unique almost from the get-go in the degree to which people had made up their minds.

"A lot of voters that claim to be undecided are people that are really so disinterested that they won't vote at all," Hess continued, adding, "Something coming this late is apt to be less important than in many previous elections."

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