Alter: How Obama Would Handle a Bin Laden Surprise

The decision by Barack Obama to return to Hawaii to visit his ailing grandmother might not be the last surprise of the last fortnight of this campaign. Two weeks is an eternity in presidential politics, which means we're likely to have one more twist before this ends—though with early voting, more than a quarter of the electorate now votes before Election Day.

What will the twist be? Reviving Jeremiah Wright, which the McCain campaign is hinting at, won't mean much. Unless the Reverend Wright himself resurfaces (he's abroad and on radio silence), that thrust would be easily parried by the Obama campaign. That's because John McCain is on tape saying a man's pastor should not be relevant in judging his character. Even if an independent 527 committee were to make an attack ad involving Wright, Obama's got an obvious jujitsu response ad making McCain out to be a hypocrite.

Maybe McCain could buy a half hour of time for a big speech that realigns his campaign. Problem is, any sudden readjustments now would play into the narrative that McCain is erratic and unpresidential. And the Obama campaign has bought up most of the remaining available time across the country, anyway. In fact, the earliest McCain can launch any kind of new offensive is Saturday, when Obama returns to the mainland. Otherwise it looks like he's beating up on a guy for visiting his grandma.

But something else is going to happen. My money is on Osama bin Laden popping back up with a hate video, just as he did the weekend before the 2004 election. That tape reminded the public that the country was still at risk from this sickening terrorist and that President Bush had kept us safe for the three years since the September 11, 2001 attacks. In that close campaign, it was this video—not the Swift Boat tactics that got all the ink—that made the difference. John Kerry, who led in several polls that weekend, saw his margin melt away.

In 2005, Kerry himself said that 9/11 was the "central deciding thing" of the 2004 election and that the bin Laden video ended any chance he had of being elected. Just because it was convenient for him to say that doesn't make it untrue.

Why did the bin Laden tape do so much damage? The 9/11 attack was still fresh in Americans' memories, and the possibility of another one was on our minds. While sophisticated analysts could explain that bin Laden released the tape just before the election because he hoped Bush would win (Bush was a better recruiting tool for Al Qaeda than a President Kerry would have been), none of that got through. The tape had the effect of freezing the 2004 campaign in place. Kerry couldn't criticize Bush at all for a pivotal 24 hours.

This was partly Kerry's own fault. After his 2003 speech attacking Bush for letting bin Laden escape at Tora Bora, Kerry dropped most bin Laden references from his speeches. Internal polling by the Kerry campaign showed that voters didn't respond well to his talking points about Bush's failure to catch bin Laden, so he gave the whole subject a rest. This was a terrible mistake. Had Kerry kept the heat on, bin Laden's re-emergence would have reinforced the message that he had not been caught.

That's what would happen this time if bin Laden tried to intervene in another American election. Seven years after 9/11, the country is in a different place, and the Obama campaign would respond to a bin Laden tape in a different way. For two years, Obama has been reminding audiences that the Bush administration has failed to catch bin Laden. First with Hillary Clinton, then with McCain, Obama has made a point in debates of saying he would risk destabilizing Pakistan by bombing the border with Afghanistan if he had actionable intelligence that Al Qaeda targets had been identified. In the second debate, on Oct. 7, Obama brought up bin Laden again, making a point of stressing that he would "kill him" if possible.

McCain's position on bin Laden has opened him up to attack in a way that Obama failed to exploit. In the second debate, McCain said, "I know how" to find bin Laden. This should have led Obama to respond that if he knows how to catch him, he should have told his friend George Bush. Obama missed a chance for that riposte in the debate, but he may yet have another opportunity.

All of this sets up a quite different dynamic should bin Laden release another tape. After condemning the new tape, Obama could launch right into renewed criticism of the failure to catch Al Qaeda's mastermind seven years after 9/11. Instead of making him look like another weak Democrat, a new tape would give Obama a chance to seem muscular on national security. McCain would try to argue that the country would be safer with him, but it probably wouldn't have the potency of Bush's similar claim in 2004.

Should there be, God forbid, an actual terrorist attack between now and the election, all bets are off. But it's instructive that only three days after the 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid that killed 193, the most deadly act of Islamic terrorism in European history, the Spanish socialists won national elections. We aren't Spain, but we're also not a country that can have a whole election thrown into disarray by terrorists. At least I hope we aren't any more, though we won't know for sure unless it happens.