WASHINGTON (AP) – The timing of Osama bin Laden’s suggestion that the United States could face another terrorist attack hardly seems coincidental, coming mere days before the U.S. presidential election. The political impact is uncertain and cuts both ways.

It bolsters President Bush’s argument that the world is a dangerous place and plays to his strength as commander in chief in fighting the war on terror. But it also underscores Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s criticism of the Republican incumbent for not doing more to hunt down bin Laden, vividly dramatizing that the al Qaida leader still is very much at large more than three years after the attacks on the United States.

“Bush can remind people that the war on terror is still on and Senator Kerry can remind people that Bush has the wrong priorities by going after Saddam Hussein instead of Osama bin Laden,” said Ed Sarpolus, a nonpartisan Michigan pollster.

Bin Laden, in a videotape aired Friday, took responsibility directly for the first time for the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and mentioned both Bush and Kerry by name. Reading a statement, the al Qaida leader said the United States can avoid another attack if it stops threatening the security of Muslims.

“Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al Qaida. Your security is in your own hands,” bin Laden said. “Each state that does not mess with our security, has naturally guaranteed its own security.”

The videotape set off a political firestorm just four days before the election, a contest in which the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror are major issues.

But political strategists had mixed views on how the development could affect the race – or what bin Laden’s motivation may have been.

“I think it’s a reminder to voters of Bush’s greatest failure as commander in chief,” said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, who used to work for Kerry. “It reminds people that he’s at large, and that Bush has had more than three years to capture him.”

Furthermore, in an overt swipe at Bush, bin Laden made specific mention of Bush continuing to read to kids in Florida while the attacks were under way – a scene documented in liberal filmmaker Michael Moore’s anti-Bush film, “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

“It appeared to him (Bush) that a little girl’s talk about her goat and its butting was more important than the planes and their butting of the skyscrapers. That gave us three times the required time to carry out the operations, thank God,” bin Laden said in the tape.

Republican consultants and some independent analysts suggested that the bin Laden tape, and its express criticism of Bush, could touch off a rally-around-the-president effect so close to the election.

Americans don’t like outsiders trying to interfere with their elections “and that kind of sentiment in my judgment would benefit Bush,” said GOP consultant Joe Gaylord.

U.S. intelligence officials say they believe the tape was made recently and are intrigued that it carried English subtitles – a first for the terrorist leader, and a possible indication that it was made mainly for a U.S. audience.

Kerry wasted little time in reiterating his argument that Bush squandered an opportunity in going after Saddam Hussein instead of concentrating on pursuing bin Laden. “He didn’t choose to use American forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden. He outsourced the job.”

He also made a statement expressing his determination to fight terrorism aggressively. “They are barbarians, and I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes, period,” Kerry said.

Bush’s reaction was terse: “Let me make this very clear. Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I’m 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.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution, said he has no doubt that bin Laden timed his message to coincide with the U.S. election. “But I don’t think he has a real preference in the election. He just knew it was a time when Americans would be paying attention,” O’Hanlon said. “He doesn’t have a reasonable agenda. I just know how he can grab people’s attention.”

It remains unclear whether voters will perceive the bin Laden tape – which does not contain an explicit threat – as a threat to the United States, said G. Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

“If it’s threatening, it may marginally help Bush,” Madonna said. But he said Kerry would get limited mileage from reminding voters that Bush hasn’t caught bin Laden because “people have been very realistic about that” and generally haven’t blamed Bush for failing to find bin Laden.

EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

AP-ES-10-29-04 1905EDT

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