Features

Surprise, surprise

"Surprise, surprise" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq: Terror without end," Oct. 2, 2004

"It's always the one who is ahead who has the most to lose," says John Bibby, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. "In many ways debates are not advantageous for an incumbent president [because] they elevate a challenger to the same level as the incumbent. Some of the advantages of being president are lost in that context."

For a Republican president, a hostile press can amplify the danger of a bad debate. "The history of these things has been that the supporters of each candidate think their man won," Mr. Bibby says. "If there's a negative assessment, it usually comes several days later after the news media has had a chance to digest the debate and comment on it." For the White House, the specter of Dan Rather picking a debate winner can hardly be a comforting thought.

Finally, there's the most frightening unknown of all: terrorism. Mr. Bush leads in the polls largely because Americans trust him, more than Mr. Kerry, to keep them safe from terrorists. A last-minute terrorist attack could radically alter that perception, throwing the entire election into doubt.

Recent bombings in Spain and Indonesia prove that al-Qaeda views national elections as a tempting target. To be effective, though, experts say terrorists would have to strike the American mainland, and not just American targets abroad-particularly in Iraq. "After a while the public has become somewhat numb to what's been going on in Iraq," Mr. Knecht says. "It would have to be something fairly dramatic to alter the public's opinion of what's going on there. One more bombing, one more beheading wouldn't do it. It would have to be something of a different magnitude."

And what about an attack on American soil? Campaign-watchers agree the impact would be impossible to predict. "If you had a major terrorist attack, it really could go two ways," Mr. Knecht says. "You might see people rally around the flag and around President Bush. Or it might be perceived as another failure of the Bush administration, leading voters to conclude that it's time for a change. There's just no way to say."

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