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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 October, 2004, 00:01 GMT 01:01 UK
Analysis: A political hand grenade

By Adam Brookes
BBC Washington correspondent

The first video message from Osama Bin Laden in two years is couched as a message to the American people.

President Bush
The tape plays to President Bush's characterisation of the war on terror
The timing, four days before the US election, must be intentional.

The first message that it sends is that Bin Laden is alive, free, and apparently healthy.

He gestured easily, appeared composed, and spoke in level tones. He looked neat and well dressed. His appearance was not that of a man on the run.

The making of the tape and its subsequent distribution suggest that, to some extent, Bin Laden has an organisational structure around him.

He is saying that he is alive, still very much a factor in the world, and still very much a threat.

Election impact

For the American voter, this tape - rolled like a political hand grenade into the closing moments of the election campaign - might have two opposite meanings.

It might mean that the "war on terror" has failed: the leadership of al-Qaeda appears free to operate and articulate its message three years after the "war" was declared.

John Kerry
John Kerry cannot be seen as trying to capitalise on the tape

In turn, that might bolster a support for change, and a Democratic president - John Kerry.

But it could, however, have the opposite effect.

Voters might perceive it as affirmation of President George W Bush's stance that the terrorist threat is alive.

And that could cause undecided voters to break towards Mr Bush in affirmation of his war on terror, and the policies he espouses to pursue it.

Spin strategy

Of crucial importance now is the way that both campaigns handle the tape, the way they describe it, draw conclusions from it, and spin it to the voters.

The Republicans probably have the easier job here.

Nothing Bin Laden says on the tape fundamentally challenges or changes the administration's assumptions about the war on terror.

Everything he says seems to bolster the importance and significance of the war on terror.

It brings to life to the idea that terrorism is still a threat to the US, and that Mr Bush is correct to frame his presidency in terms of America's security.

For the Democrats, the job is much more difficult.

Many of the criticisms and observations made by Bin Laden in this tape - that President Bush is untruthful, that he has mismanaged the war on terror - are themes that appear in the Democratic campaign.

Mr Kerry cannot afford to even remotely appear to be capitalising on this tape, or echoing sentiments in it.

His most likely response is to repeat his assertion that the war in Iraq has been a diversion; that the real threat is Bin Laden; and after three years he is still making threats while American forces are overstretched in Iraq.

We know that voters, when questioned about national security, place greater faith in Mr Bush than in Mr Kerry.

The impact of the tape on the closing moments of the campaign will only become clear in the next day or two.

But it would be wrong to assume that it is all bad news for Mr Bush's re-election chances.

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