| President George W. Bush embraces California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at a campaign rally in Columbus, Ohio. John Kerry with actor Kirsten Dunst at a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida. (AFP, Reuters)
Washington, Oct. 30: Osama bin Laden parachuted onto the centrestage of the US presidential campaign last evening and injected a fresh dose of uncertainty to the results of Tuesday's voting that even the rashest of political pundits are now unwilling to predict.
Bin Laden's injection into the heart of the year-long campaign was expected: but what was long expected ' and feared by John Kerry and other Democrats ' was that the head of al Qaida would be produced in the second half of October in chains, humiliated like Saddam Hussein after his capture from an underground hole in Iraq.
Instead, the Saudi billionaire-turned-terrorist swaggered into the drawing rooms of shocked Americans as they were preparing dinner on Friday evening, calmly addressing them from behind what looked like a lectern, apparently healthy and clad in traditional golden robes worn by the royalty and tribal leaders in the Arabian Gulf.
As every television channel here scrambled to get clips of bin Laden's video message from the Qatar-based al Jazeera TV, Americans were reminded by the al Qaida chief of what many of them consider to be one of the most shameful moments in their public persona: images of George W. Bush sitting in a Florida school, looking confused and then reading aloud a children's story about 'The Pet Goat' even after he was told that the World Trade Center in New York had been attacked.
Despite that reminder 'and other criticism by bin Laden of the Bush administration's policies ' it was Kerry's campaign which was showing signs of nervousness about bin Laden's decision to inject himself into the heart of the US presidential campaign.
Kerry's camp had begun smelling victory in the final lap of their campaign. Things have been fortuitously going their way in the last few days.
Bush had been battered all of this week by revelations that 380 tonnes of explosives in Iraq, secured by the International Atomic Energy Agency, had disappeared, fresh evidence that Halliburton, Vice-President Dick Cheney's former employer, may have got unfair advantage in Iraqi contracts and signals that Iraq was becoming a bottomless pit in swallowing American taxpayers' money for the war even as the US economy was in trouble.
But the bin Laden tape, his first video in two years, may yet result in Bush nudging past Kerry to victory on Tuesday.
While Bush and Kerry are tied overall in opinion polls, the President still enjoys a huge advantage over his challenger on issues of national security and terrorism. A clear majority of Americans believes Bush is better placed to deal with the twin issues.
The overall effect of bin Laden's on-screen appearance will be to heighten threat perceptions on polling day.
If that happens, many undecided voters may cast their ballots for Bush ensuring his victory.
The conventional wisdom worldwide is that bin Laden prefers Bush to be re-elected because his policies have alienated Muslims, pushed moderate Muslims even in secular societies such as Indonesia, Turkey or Uzbekistan towards anti-Americanism and opened up a vast recruiting field for al Qaida.
The bin Laden video brought Bush and Kerry together very briefly last evening. They issued very similar statements taking a common stand against bin Laden's continuing existence.
Kerry talked to reporters before boarding his campaign jet at a Florida airport shortly after the video was aired. 'In response to this tape of Osama bin Laden, let me just make it clear, crystal clear, as Americans we are united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists,' he said.
'They are barbarians, I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes,' he added.
Bush, too, said in a statement at an airport tarmac in Ohio: 'Let me make this very clear. Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I am sure Senator Kerry agrees with this. I also want to say to the American people that we are at war with these terrorists, and I am confident that we will prevail.'
But within hours, the facade of unity fell victim to the heat of the campaign.
Renewing his attacks on the President, Kerry said: 'I regret that when George W. Bush had the opportunity in Afghanistan at Tora Bora, he did not use our forces to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden. He outsourced to the warlords.'
Responding to the attack, Bush said: 'Unfortunately my opponent tonight continued to say things he knows are not true, accusing our military of passing up a chance to get Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora.
'It is simply not the case. It is especially shameful in the light of a new tape from America's enemy.'