"Kryptonite for both sides"

Avoiding mention of his name, Bush and Kerry try to turn the reappearance of Osama bin Laden into an advantage.


Julian Borger
November 1, 2004 5:30PM (UTC)

The banner behind George W. Bush in a concrete Miami exhibition hall promised a "safer, stronger and better" America. It was lettered in red on black, like a government terrorist alert. When Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a fire-breathing Cuban-American congressman, asked the 4,000-strong crowd: "Who do the enemies of America favor for this election? Who do the tyrants and terrorists support?" the answer was instant and deafening: "John Kerry."

Although the president did not say anything about Osama bin Laden's threat, blanket coverage on television had ensured it set the tone for everything that was said and done on the campaign trail.

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"This guy is trying to send a message he may hit us again, and that's why we need President Bush -- he's a leader," said George Albert, a veteran of the Korean War. Around his neck, he wore a badge depicting two cartoon Uncle Sams standing in front of the U.S. and British flags declaring: "We support our troops."

On the penultimate day of the Bush reelection effort, the crowd chanting "four more years" had all seen bin Laden on television, and heard his threats. They did not have to be told what it meant.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke first, introducing his brother, the president, in Spanish for the benefit of the largely Cuban-American audience. Neither mentioned bin Laden by name. President Bush stuck to his regular stump speech, peppering it with the official slogan of the last few days of the campaign: "Come stand with me." The speech focused mainly on domestic concerns, with a few digressions on Cuba. There was no talk of Iraq or Afghanistan.

There were no new asides about bin Laden's surprise appearance on Friday, and the president only dwelled on terrorism as an amorphous threat. "All progress on other issues depends on the safety of your families," he declared. "If America shows uncertainty or weakness as we go through troubled times, the world will drift towards tragedy.

"This is not going to happen on my watch." The promise is at the core of the Bush campaign as it enters its last full day Monday. White House aides have become extremely careful about publicly guessing the impact of bin Laden's "October surprise." "It's kryptonite for both sides," one traveling official said, and in a exquisitely poised contest like this, neither wants to risk disaster.

Behind the scenes the battle is over how to shape the media coverage of each candidate's response. The Bush camp accuses Sen. Kerry of trying to turn the incident to political advantage, by criticizing the president for his failure to catch the al-Qaida leader.

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"I think Bush's response really helped him. It shows he can handle the problem much better than Kerry. Kerry just did a political spin," said Jordan Birch, a New York activist who had joined the all-out Republican effort to hold Florida. "Bringing a new administration this late in the game, there is no way they can catch up. This administration has been dealing with the problem for years."

That was the view, at least, from Bush world. No one yet knows how the bin Laden factor might play among remaining undecided voters, if such people still exist. But the tone and body language of Bush campaign officials have become noticeably more bullish. White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who returned to the campaign trail after a short absence, apparently to help steer the bin Laden affair, held up both arms in front of the traveling press corps and shouted: "Vamos a ganar" ("We are going to win"). It was a joking reference to the Hispanic flavor of the venue, but even being able to joke at this stage of the game is a display of confidence.

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Everyone in the Bush caravan as it made its way from Florida to Ohio Sunday night was well aware that their team was just as cocky on the eve of the 2000 election. And yet, if it had not been for a few hanging chads and assorted twists of Florida electoral law, Bush would have lost. Since then the Bush campaign has built a national volunteer network that is 250,000 strong, and is designed to do what the Democratic machine did in 2000: turn out the vote. But no one knows if the Republicans' green volunteers can match the battle-hardened union and student activists on the other side.

Republican activist Birch worried that the long lines at the voting booths would discourage older Republican voters, at a time when Miami is sweltering through an unseasonably hot autumn. His friend and fellow New York volunteer, Dan O'Leary, agreed. "It comes down to the voting," O'Leary said. "It's definitely not in the bag."


Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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