With two days to spare, the October Surprise arrived yesterday, but it was not the type either campaign had in mind.
Instead, it was America's most loathed enemy, injecting himself into Tuesday's election -- not with the bombs that preceded the elections in Spain but with a videotape taunting President Bush, Democratic nominee John F. Kerry and Americans generally.
As Bush and Kerry responded with dignified statements of unity against Osama bin Laden, the two campaigns struggled to game out their reactions, and to figure out how such a surreal event -- the feared, ghostly image returning to Americans' TV screens after a long absence -- would alter Tuesday's outcome.
Some Democrats held out hope that the reappearance of bin Laden would remind Americans that Bush still had not caught the arch villain, and lend legitimacy to Kerry's argument that Bush allowed the United States to get distracted in Iraq. But Republicans argued -- and some Democrats privately agreed -- that the videotape would revive Americans' fears of terrorism, an issue on which Bush is strongest.
Few expected bin Laden's October Surprise to have a major impact on voters' choices. "The response from the American people is going to be more along the line of 'This guy is trying to inject himself in the process, and we don't like it,' " Republican pollster David Winston said. "Their response will be not to let him."
But in an election as close as this one is, even minor influences can have some impact. That concern was evident in the reaction to the tape's broadcast yesterday -- first an unusual silence, then hurried meetings and, finally, cautious statements.
Kerry went first. "Let me make it clear, crystal clear: As Americans, we are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists," he said.
Bush followed in nearly identical form. "Let me make this very clear: Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I'm sure Senator Kerry agrees with this."
But even as the candidates uttered statesmanlike phrases, their advisers and allies were beginning the spin.
Richard C. Holbrooke, a foreign policy adviser for Kerry, said on CNN that the tape was a reminder that Kerry would be more aggressive in pursuing bin Laden. "How can this grotesque mass murderer be out there on worldwide television more than three years after 9/11?" he demanded. "Why haven't we captured him, if the Bush administration was going to be so effective in the war on terror?"
Kerry himself, in a television interview, complained that Bush "outsourced" the hunt for bin Laden and said "we are paying the price for it today" -- before he made his more circumspect statement. Bush joined the fray later in the evening, calling Kerry's remarks "shameful" at a rally in Ohio.
John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), said bin Laden's statement might help Bush. "You really want a strong leader" when bin Laden makes threats, Feehery said, "so it plays well for the president."
Clearly, the bin Laden cameo in the 2004 presidential race has the potential to cut both ways. Weighing in Bush's favor is that Americans have typically rallied around the president when they have felt threatened, and bin Laden's tape is menacing. Also, the fact that bin Laden was making his presence known through a videotape rather than through a Madrid-style attack could be seen as evidence that Bush had done his job of protecting the public.
Notably, the administration raised no warnings about the tape's airing on television; in the past, the administration had warned that tapes might be used to activate sleeper cells in the United States. This time, it was Kerry's side urging television networks to be cautious in playing the tape.
"If you've got Osama back on the scene talking about 9/11 but not making an attack, it could be the best of both worlds" for Bush, said Republican strategist Jeff Bell. "It's good for Bush, the fact that [bin Laden] hasn't been able to attack, except for verbally."
Kerry aides appeared visibly alarmed aboard the candidate's plane as they planned a response to the tape's airing. One prominent Democrat speculated that for swing voters who have not followed the election closely, bin Laden's reappearance may well boost Bush.
On the other hand, the bin Laden appearance may reinforce some of Kerry's arguments. Bin Laden practically quoted Kerry when he said "Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you," and he seemed to be familiar with the liberal filmmaker Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" and its mockery of Bush for reading "My Pet Goat" with children while the World Trade Center towers burned. "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 . . . because he thought listening to a child discussing her goat and its ramming was more important," bin Laden said.
Marshall Wittmann, with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, observed that the first commercial on one network after the bin Laden tape was Bush's campaign ad about wolves gathering for an attack. The tape "was a reminder that the head of the wolf pack was still on the loose," he said.
Republicans have long insinuated, and occasionally asserted, that bin Laden favors Kerry's election, so it must have come as a relief to Kerry's campaign that bin Laden ended his denunciation of Bush with a dismissal of the Democrat as well.
Still, Kerry adviser Mike McCurry appeared unusually somber as he told reporters that the candidate would proceed with the campaign as if the tape had not appeared. "It's very important for us to move forward. We're in the closing days of the campaign. We're going ahead and doing our events as we would." Pressed for more, he responded with uncharacteristic brevity: "We gave the reaction right now to you that he wanted to give."
Staff writers Charles Babington and Jim VandeHei and political researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.