WASHINGTON - Fear surrounding the sniper shootings is spreading across the country less than two weeks before Election Day, forcing political strategists to calculate the effect the killings are having on their campaigns.
Televisions and radios around the nation are blaring news of the sniper attacks at perhaps the most critical moment in a midterm election - at the very point when many voters start paying close attention to the candidates and their messages.
The national anxiety could be bad news for some Democratic candidates in their efforts to appeal to voters, who tend to trust Republicans more on crime issues. It could also help incumbents in competitive races, analysts say, because some people are hesitant to vote against the status quo at a time of uncertainty.
The shootings have had an effect in Montgomery County and throughout Maryland, where congressional and gubernatorial candidates have canceled some appearances and volunteers have expressed fears about knocking on doors.
With both parties worried that the shootings could depress turnout, Maryland may call in the National Guard to protect voters on Nov. 5, Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday.
But now, according to recent national polls, fear about the serial sniper is reaching far beyond the Washington area and across the country.
A Gallup poll conducted Oct. 14-17 found that more than a quarter of Americans worried that they or a family member might be shot by a sniper. And in a Newsweek poll conducted Oct. 10-11, 47 percent of Americans surveyed said they feared that a family member could be a victim of a sniper shooting.
"It is clearly crossing state lines, and it's gripped the nation," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said yesterday on CNN. "It's affecting all Americans."
News organizations from as far away as California and Texas have been giving the sniper shootings the kind of intensive coverage normally reserved for violence that hits close to home. Such news outlets have kept up with the latest developments and reminded viewers and listeners that people are "on edge."
Many strategists are loath to talk openly about the effect of the sniper killings on the national elections. But privately, some Republicans and Democrats agree that the blanket news coverage could cost Democrats on the campaign trail.
"What it overall has done is prevented the Democrats from really focusing on a unified message," one Republican strategist said. "It blunts them from being able to get their issues out and on people's minds."
Over the past few months, Democrats have watched with frustration as their No. 1 campaign issue - the economy - has been eclipsed by news coverage of homeland security and a potential war in Iraq. Those security-related issues are widely thought to work to the advantage of President Bush and the Republican candidates he has been campaigning for.
Now, as the rash of sniper killings is increasingly frightening people not just in the Washington area but around the country as well, public opinion watchers say political campaigns can't help but be affected.
"The sniper manhunt has become a searing national issue - it's almost front-and-center the way the aftermath of 9/11 was," says Keith Haller, an independent pollster based in Bethesda. "We're living in a very fragile time, and it doesn't take much to cause a shift in focus."
That kind of shift among voters - from worrying most about their personal financial well-being to being more uneasy about their physical safety - could tip the balance in any close race.
The national focus on the sniper could be affecting the Texas governor's race, where one strategist for Tony Sanchez, a Democrat who is challenging the Republican governor, Rick Perry, said that news coverage of the sniper has given the incumbent an edge.
It has "worked to Perry's advantage," said Paul Maslin, Sanchez's pollster. The issue helps the Republican governor, Maslin suggested, because his party is seen as stronger on crime issues and because incumbents tend to benefit in times of uncertainty.
Still, some Democratic strategists say that if anything, the news blitz will help their candidates by shifting Americans' attention back to issues closer to home, such as health care, Social Security and education, where Democrats are seen as stronger.
"In purely political terms, it just might be that by pushing Iraq talk off the network news and off the front page of the newspapers, it's helped to move the focus of the election back to domestic issues," said Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. And "just maybe, it's reconnected suburban women to the gun issue in a way that's beneficial to Democrats."
That might be true in cities, Haller said, but in the suburbs, the rash of shootings could just as well solidify "a law-and-order mentality" that would benefit Republicans.
The fears for personal safety, analysts say, could also mean that fewer voters will turn out on Nov. 5 - and not just in Maryland.