October surprise!

Osama bin Laden makes an unexpected appearance on videotape, giving the jitters to two already high-anxiety campaigns.

Published October 29, 2004 10:22PM (EDT)

The October surprise has come, and it's not from Karl Rove. As John Kerry was speaking at a rally in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Friday, a seemingly healthy and relaxed Osama bin Laden, who hadn't been seen on tape since late last year, emerged in a new videotape first aired on al-Jazeera. "I want to explain to you why 9/11 took place," bin Laden said in Arabic in a message to the American people. He issued a threat that if U.S. policies don't change, "the American people can expect to see more."

"Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaida," bin Laden said. "Your security is in your hands." In the 18-minute videotape, bin Laden appeared before a brown background and wears a golden cloak. He accused George W. Bush of misleading the American people, and even taunted him "Fahrenheit 9/11"-style for acting slowly on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. "It never occurred to us that the commander in chief of the American forces would leave 50,000 citizens in the two towers to face those horrors alone at a time when they most needed him because he thought listening to a child discussing her goat and its ramming was more important than the planes and their ramming of the skyscrapers," he said, mangling what transpired in the Florida classroom that day, according to the Reuters translation.

With bin Laden's surprising reappearance just four days before the election, a presidential race that had already been maddeningly close became even tougher to call. The bin Laden tape could be just the added factor that tips this election -- but heading into the final weekend of campaigning, it was tough to see yet just how.

After Kerry's speech in West Palm Beach, the candidate huddled with his aides to assess how best to respond, and received a briefing from his adviser Rand Beers, who was briefed by national security officials. The campaign herded reporters onto the press plane with no comment, then hastily announced that Kerry would made a statement out on the tarmac, sending reporters scurrying out of the plane. "As Americans, we are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists," Kerry said. "They are barbarians. And I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes. Period." Bush spoke to reporters about the bin Laden tape in Toledo. "Let me make this very clear," he said. "Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I am sure Sen. Kerry agrees with me on this. I also want to say to the American people that we are at war with these terrorists, and I am confident we will prevail."

It was unclear whether and how the Kerry campaign would use the bin Laden remarks against Bush. For months, Kerry has criticized Bush for letting bin Laden slip away at Tora Bora in December 2001. Soon after the videotape surfaced Friday, senior Kerry advisor Richard Holbrooke told CNN that "the tape shows he's still around."

But even as Holbrooke was speaking, the campaign staff was scrambling to come up with the right message. As Kerry flew from West Palm Beach to Miami, Kerry spokesman David Wade told reporters on the plane that he "wouldn't speculate about the politics" of the bin Laden tape. "Once Kerry and the traveling press corps landed in Miami, spokesman Mike McCurry said: "The American people are not gonna let Osama bin Laden deny them the opportunity to hear the debate that theyve been hearing between the candidates."

Kerry didn't mention the tape at a roaring rally in Miami Friday night; in fact, he didn't mention bin Laden at all. In a message that may have been meant for the local crowd or may have been meant for bin Laden, Kerry said that he would stand by Israel and hold Arab countries responsible for acts of aggression.

If Kerry steers clear of bin Laden for the rest of the race, it will be a major departure from the way he has campaigned so far. It was Kerry, after all, who reminded Bush during their third debate that he had once said he was "not that concerned about [bin Laden]." With bin Laden's reappearance, voters will plainly be concerned about him as they go to the polls on Tuesday.

After the initial scramble to find a message, Kerry aides seemed comfortable with the way the candidate is handling the issue. They were working it hard -- backstage at the Miami event, McCurry had one cell phone in his hand and another at his ear -- but they were all smiles as they watched Springsteen and Kerry feed off the energy of an excited crowd.

As Kerry traveled through Florida Friday, his campaign fanned out across the country in a far-flung fight to find 270 Electoral College votes. It's not just about Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida anymore. Kerry will spend crucial campaign time in Michigan this weekend, a state he should have locked up by now. Al Gore and Alexandra Kerry and maybe Howard Dean are headed to Hawaii, where Democrats are nervous about close polls in a state Gore won by nearly 20 percentage points four years ago. Bill Clinton and Teresa Heinz Kerry have been dispatched to New Mexico in the hopes of keeping a blue state from tipping red. Iowa is close. Minnesota is close. Wisconsin is close.

In a "closing argument" speech in Orlando Friday morning, Kerry said he's seen "crushed hopes" and "people struggling when they shouldn't be." He was talking about the economy, but he could have been talking about his own campaign -- or about George Bush's. The Democrats are anxious, but the Republicans have worries, too. Four years of presidential care and coddling later, Florida is just as close as it was when the Supreme Court called off the vote count in 2000. Victory in Ohio is elusive. New Hampshire may be turning away from the president. Arkansas is at least a theoretical risk.

Both sides say they feel confident. Neither knows for sure. And that was before bin Laden dropped a bomb -- figuratively speaking -- four days before the election.

On a call with reporters just before the tape aired Friday, Kerry spokesman Tad Devine said: "I feel very good about where we are. It's fair to say that John Kerry enters this final weekend of the campaign in many ways in stronger shape than the Democratic nominee entered the final weekend four years ago." That nominee, Al Gore, won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, something Devine doesn't see happening this year. He said Kerry is strong in the battleground states and that he has the resources to take both Ohio and Florida away from George W. Bush

Karl Rove has told reporters that the Republicans' private polls had put Bush, before Friday, either even or up in all but one or two of the battleground states. The truth may be somewhere in between, or not. Reporters traveling with the candidates seem to have no gut sense of where the race is headed. Political scientists are equally mystified. "Like everybody else, I'm desperately looking for [signs of] momentum, and I just don't see any," the University of Virginia's Larry Sabato said Friday morning. "Maybe the private tracking polls are showing something different, but I never believe the campaigns in the last week. They're always 'fine,' they're always 'looking good,' they're always expecting a big turnout, blah blah blah."

Sabato's equivocal prediction: "The likelihood is that we're headed for at least a close popular election, but who knows what the Electoral College will look like? You can get 20 electoral votes from winning a state by 500 votes. So who knows?"

The polls certainly don't provide an answer. Friday's Fox News poll has Bush up 50-45. Friday's Democracy Corps poll has Kerry up 49-47. And polls released Friday by Zogby and TIPP have the race tied at 45-45 and 46-46, respectively.

There are positive signs for Kerry. The national poll numbers -- irrelevant in and of themselves but important for TV talk about momentum -- seem to be trending in Kerry's direction. Kerry drew huge crowds in Wisconsin and Ohio Thursday for pitch-perfect made-for-TV rallies with Bruce Springsteen.

But the bin Laden tape is the great X factor. Until it emerged Friday virtually every recent news event with political implications had cut in Kerry's favor. Job numbers kept disappointing. The Duelfer report declared once and for all that Saddam Hussein had no WMD. Fifty Iraqi cops were executed, and interim Iraqi leader Ayad Allawi said that the U.S.-led coalition forces shared part of the blame. Karl Rove was called to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the outing of Valerie Plame, and the FBI is investigating Halliburton's no-bid contracts in Iraq.

And then there was Al Qaqaa. The story of the missing munitions had been something of a perfect storm in the campaign's final week. It played perfectly into Kerry's message, and it has put the White House on the defensive. It has also led, directly and indirectly, to uncharacteristic stumbles from a Rove-run campaign. Rove dispatched Rudy Giuliani to defend the president on TV, only to have him say that any blame for the lost munitions should fall on the troops in the field. The Pentagon tried to defend the president with a satellite photo of trucks parked in Al Qaqaa, but, in an error that echoed those in Colin Powell's war brief to the U.N., the picture showed the wrong bunkers. And then the Bush-Cheney campaign released a TV ad titled "Whatever It Takes," the "whatever" apparently being the digital manipulation of an image of soldiers surrounding the commander in chief.

The Bush campaign ultimately admitted to the Photoshopping, but the bumbles and stumbles kept coming. The Republicans tried to counter any momentum Kerry got out of Boston's World Series victory by announcing that Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling would campaign with Bush. Schilling backed out, allegedly on "doctor's orders." The campaign planned a big confetti conclusion for Bush's speech in New Hampshire today, but the confetti guns erupted prematurely, interrupting Bush as he paid tribute to the mother of a Sept. 11 victim.

The metaphors were all there for the taking, but nothing seemed to take. Kerry won three debates. The news had all broken his way. The Bush campaign was bumbling. Why wasn't Kerry walking away with this thing? "This country is so polarized, and there's so much money being spent, this race was never going to be a big blowout win for anybody," said Paul Maslin, who helped run Howard Dean's campaign. "It was never in the cards for this thing to bust loose."

Friday morning, Maslin said he still thought Kerry would pull it out, that Kerry would win by taking Ohio and the upper Midwest, maybe New Mexico, maybe New Hampshire, maybe even Florida. "This thing is poised," he said. "For Bush to win at this stage of the game, it's got to defy everything I've learned about politics all my life. Undecideds don't break toward incumbents, there's been a host of bad news, and on and on and on. It's set up right now for people to take a chance on Kerry."

"Take a chance" isn't the language the Kerry campaign would use, of course, particularly with the bin Laden tape's heavy rotation on CNN. After the bin Laden tape release, Maslin told Salon it was too soon to tell what the impact would be on the campaign. "It could piss people off at bin Laden or it could piss people off at Bush because bin Laden is still alive," he said.

Typically, it's true that undecided voters typically break for the challenger, but this isn't a typical year. The nation is scarred from Sept. 11 and mired in a war in Iraq. There's a cultural divide so wide that people can't talk across it and don't understand each other when they do. Americans can't agree on the way out of the nation's problems or even what they are. The idea of staying the course has a powerful pull on many Americans. As McCurry said Friday morning in Orlando, Americans who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 may have a hard time looking back now and saying they were wrong. The bin Laden tape could make it easier, or it could make it harder.

Kerry stepped into the epicenter of the 2000 election Friday afternoon, holding an outdoor rally in West Palm Beach. The wounds from four years ago are still fresh here, but the crowd that greeted Kerry was so small that reporters walking into the event literally stopped and stared, looking around for the rest of the people who must have been there somewhere. Even worse: As Kerry rambled off into a series of statistics about healthcare costs and the like, more than a few of the people in the crowd wandered off. The glory days of that Springsteen rally in Madison seemed a very long way away, and with bin Laden on TV, Springsteen himself seemed irrelevant.

There will be ups and downs in these final days -- McCurry was dancing with Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter in Ohio Thursday night, then glum-faced and serious in Orlando Friday morning. The candidate was serious Friday, too, unveiling a final-stretch stump speech that ignores the news of the day and focuses hard on what Kerry calls a fundamental choice between George W. Bush's record of failure and his own hopeful plan for a better future. "It is time for America to put the politics of polarization behind us," Kerry said Friday morning in Orlando. "It is time to appeal to the best instincts of Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike. It is time for America to renew the faith that there is something for every single one of us to do -- and challenges for each of us to try."

Again and again in Florida Friday, Kerry said: "You can choose a fresh start. And when I'm president, that's what you'll get." Although Kerry sounded optimistic, he knew that it's still an if, not a when. And if he didn't know that when he spoke, he certainly knows it now.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2004 Elections George W. Bush John F. Kerry D-mass.