Will al Qaeda re-elect the President?

The Baehr Essentials


Howard Fineman reported that the Kerry campaign is leaning strongly towards John Edwards for his VP pick. Edwards was a favorite of the media during the primary season —— he is a fresh face, a smooth speaker (performer, really), and apparently polls well with Kerry. The Edwards boomlet raises some interesting themes. During the primary season, Edwards won only South Carolina, his birth state, and lost narrowly in Iowa and Wisconsin, two Midwestern states sure to be closely contested in the Fall. He also lost narrowly in Oklahoma to Wesley Clark, giving the General his only victory.


Despite his Southern roots, Edwards is not a cinch to add any Deep South states to the Kerry camp. But he might help in Florida, in many ways not a Southern state at all, and in the competitive Midwest. So far, he has spent his time auditioning in Ohio and Florida, a clue to where the Kerry team thinks the election will be decided.  Edwards is a relative lightweight on foreign policy and national security, the areas where Bush is now suffering declining poll numbers. His emphasis is on jobs, and education and domestic issues. At the moment, the economy is improving rapidly, with strong jobs growth two months in a row, and the Edwards themes may not register quite as well as they did several months back. He also brings the trial lawyer issue into play.  Most Americans are not fans of this avaricious class of attorneys.


The foreign policy part of the campaign has two components. On one, the war on terror, Bush is still viewed as a strong leader. On Iraq—region>, the recent polls suggest his approval ratings have slipped dramatically. The news on Iraq—region> may improve a bit after June 30, but this war carries greater risks than rewards, for the President.


But the President's campaign may receive a gift from al Qaeda, if fear of domestic terror attacks becomes a pressing national concern. Yesterday, The New York Times  hinted that the announcement by government officials that al Qaeda may be planning attacks in the US—region> this summer is designed to change the subject, and help with the campaign. This of course is from the same paper that lashed out at the President , and heaped praise on Richard Clarke, for arguing that the President was not focused enough on avoiding terror attacks before 9/11, and has not concentrated enough on them since because of the Iraq diversion. The only consistent theme from the Times is that Bush is always wrong, and must go down.


But the summer represents a target—rich environment for al Qaeda both here and abroad. The Olympics should be easy for al Qaeda to hit. These Games, after all, will be played in Greece—region>, a country that hasn't been known for vigilant anti—terror efforts. Greece—region> is probably the European country most hostile to Israel—region>,  but is so desperate to avoid attacks, that it has begged for Israeli help with security for the Games. For the first time three countries will be allowed to have their own security forces at the Games to guard their athletes.  Bombs go off routinely in Athens already (more than one a week), generally set by domestic terror groups. This is a demonstrably benign environment for terrorists.


The two major political parties each chose disastrously for their convention. The Democrats will close down half of downtown Boston to hold their convention in the safest (politically, that is) of  Democratic states,  Being in Boston guarantees an outsize role and lots of  attention for Teddy Kennedy, its growling, nasty senior Senator.  If Kerry wants to play in Middle America, and the South, he could not have chosen a worse place for his showcase. The recent introduction of gay marriage in Massachusetts, which will be downplayed by the Party, is sure to be highlighted by at least some in the media, which will play well to the already convinced, but not so well for more conservative folks. Kerry flubbed badly this week, by appearing to be considering gaming the campaign finance system (again), by openly considering delaying his acceptance of the nomination until a month after the convention. The Kerry camp has now rejected the idea.


The Republicans did not do any better with their convention pick. By scheduling the convention late, and near the 9/11 anniversary, the President may have sought to tie his electoral fate to his response to those attacks. But the attitudes of New Yorkers towards the President have changed a great deal since the heady days of his standing ovation at Yankee Stadium before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. And New York will be more of a madhouse than normal, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators expected. The President may benefit from the stridency of the demonstrations, much as Richard Nixon benefited from the riots and chaos in Chicago at the Democratic convention in 1968. But those benefits may not extend to New York, of course. There is also the risk of the demonstrators drowning out any positive message from the convention (producing the expected poll bounce), due to the media's inevitable cynical spin on events.  


Given the security precautions for the conventions, one would think that sleeper cell of al Qaeda would choose less—defended targets. And well they might. A suicide bombing attack on a shopping mall or other public establishment in cities across the country is probably not preventable. Al Qaeda has preferred symbolic targets in the past (WTC, the Pentagon),  but killing scores of people with a  chemical or biologic attack, or dirty bomb would strike fear in much of the country that now expects these ghastly things to only happen in New York and Washington.  We are a big, open, free country, with unlimited opportunity for those with ambition and a strong work ethic. That is why people all over the world want to live here.  But our openness is also our vulnerability.  If there is another attack or attacks, the civil liberties absolutists will soon be very much a diminishing minority as to the wisdom of the Patriot Act.


If terror is the subject, Bush still benefits politically.  And Bush is not managing the news on this: the threats are real.  Ask the Greeks.


A final note. The polls have stabilized somewhat this week —— with the race fairly even —— Kerry generally ahead a point or two without Nader, and even with Bush with Nader included in the race. The CBS poll seems to be an outlier, showing Kerry with a much bigger lead. That poll may have been taken among CBS News and 60 Minutes staff.  The state polls are less promising for the President this week. John Zogby has started a bi—weekly poll for the Wall Street Journal of 16 battleground states, and Kerry currently leads in 12 of them, including all the big ones, though some (e.g. Florida) very narrowly.  Three weeks before the election in 2000, Zogby had Gore with a 13% lead in Florida. So state polls are certainly not a great predictor this far out.  Zogby is a respected pollster, and his polls have been less encouraging for the President all the way through the campaign, than other organizations' polls.


Some pundits are now predicting a big win for Kerry, rather than the conventional wisdom of a close race to the end. This election will be determined by news events more than perhaps any other in recent memory.  And al Qaeda may not get the same election result they sought in Spain—region> if they strike again in our homeland.