WASHINGTON - Like the terrorist bombs that ripped through trains in Madrid four days before Spain's national election, the new video by Osama bin Laden landed with explosive force exactly four days before America is to choose a president.
Whether or not the al-Qaida leader's latest message will make a difference in the deadlocked contest between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, this much is clear: The focus of the campaign's final hours is now firmly fixed on bin Laden and terrorism.
"The whole country will be talking about this tape, and their reaction to it, and whether it will have an impact on the campaign," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster.
"The last story is playing out in this campaign, and it is this one."
Last spring's pre-election bombing was widely credited with helping the Socialist opposition oust Spain's pro-American government. The new leaders campaigned on a promise to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq and quickly made good on their pledge.
If bin Laden is seen as trying to boost the anti-Bush vote, his words could have the reverse effect, analysts said last night.
At the same time, they added, any gains for Bush could be offset by the visible reminder that bin Laden remains at large, more than three years after the terrorist strike.
The new tape "does two things," said Tony Coelho, a Democratic strategist who helped manage Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "It reinforces that bin Laden's alive, and that helps Kerry. But it also demeans Bush, and that helps Bush with his base.
"They're going to be irritated that anybody, but especially bin Laden, would attack the president. A lot of other people will also be upset that this guy in particular is attacking the president of the United States."
For months, both sides have steeled themselves for a last-minute, pre-election terrorist incident that, most politicians concluded, would prompt voters to rally behind the president.
The new tape doesn't contain even a direct threat of a new attack. However, it could strengthen the president's support by attracting wavering voters for whom the fight against terrorism is the most important issue.
It also dovetails with his theme of protecting the country from terrorism, which Bush is emphasizing in his closing advertising blitz. Kerry, in contrast, has shifted more toward economic issues such as jobs and health care.
In his speeches, however, the Democrat has repeatedly criticized Bush over his failure to capture the al-Qaida leader. Kerry also attacked Bush in a televised debate over the president's statement in 2002 that he "truly" was "not that concerned" about bin Laden.
After bin Laden surfaced on TV for the first time, Kerry renewed his charge that Bush had "outsourced" the hunt for the al-Qaida leader to Afghan warlords and let him slip away in the battle of Tora Bora.
Kerry has also repeatedly criticized Bush over the war in Iraq, which the senator has called a distraction from the search for bin Laden and the wider U.S. campaign against terrorism.
Yesterday, Bush was quick to react to Kerry's renewed attack, insisting it wasn't true that American forces passed up a chance to get bin Laden in Tora Bora. Bush called that "especially shameful, in light of the new tape from America's enemy."
Voter anger stoked
Like other Republicans, strategist Mike Murphy, in response to an e-mailed question, said the tape "helps Bush" because it stokes voter anger against the al-Qaida leader.
In his latest message, bin Laden assails Bush in terms that echo attacks by the president's political opponents at home. Bin Laden accuses the president of "misleading" America and taunts him over his reaction to the Sept. 11 strike.
"It never occurred to us," bin Laden says, according to an English translation of the tape, "that he, the commander-in-chief of the country, would leave 50,000 citizens in the two towers to face those horrors alone, because he thought listening to a child discussing her goats was more important."
One of the central scenes in Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary, contains footage of Bush reading My Pet Goat in a Florida elementary school for seven minutes after learning that the second World Trade Center tower has been hit.
Bin Laden's apparent attempt to intervene in the American campaign gives fresh impetus to the issue of terrorism, which has worked to Bush's advantage for months. Polls show that Bush holds a significant edge over Kerry when voters are asked which candidate would do a better job of leading the fight against terrorism.
Bush's campaign speeches, including one he delivered last night only hours after the tape surfaced on Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV station, have sought to contrast his leadership in fighting terrorism with what he describes as Kerry's weakness in that struggle.