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A journalist observed Iraqi

A journalist observed Iraqi Islamists looting weapons and explosives from al Qaqaa as late as November 2003.

"I was utterly stupefied to see that a place like that was pretty much unguarded and that insurgents could help themselves for months on end. We were there for a long time and no one disturbed the group while they were loading their truck," she says.

I was off-line for

I was off-line for about three hours this evening. And when I got back to my computer there were a couple hundred emails commenting from various perspectives and viewpoints about the OBL tape that ran this afternoon.

The opinions ranged the gamut, from panic to indifference, many with steadfastness and underlying optimism.

Overall, though, the letters again struck me with what is one of the Democrats' greatest weaknesses: their vulnerability to getting knocked off stride by the rush of events, their tendency to fret that all is lost, almost to indulge in it, when the car hits a simple bump in the road.

Whether this OBL tape represents no-bump, a bump, or something more damaging than a bump, I don't know. But reactions can dictate and shape outcomes, especially in such a context as this where perception is the essence of the matter.

Another way I've noticed this over the years is that Republicans are usually far more confident that their candidates are going to win given races, whether polls give reason for the confidence or not, whether the eventual outcome bears out the confidence or not.

Democrats could use more of that.

Let's look at what is happening right now.

The Bush campaign is trying to use the OBL tape to slap the Kerry campaign around, knock them off their stride, and argue that for Kerry now even to mention anything about the president's failure to bag bin Laden is the height of shamefulness.

The president's communications director even told reporters that the only acceptable thing would be for John Kerry to observe a twelve or more hour moratorium on attacks on the president, even though the president should be allowed to continue attacking John Kerry.

That is what they're playing for. (That's also the reason the Bush campaign didn't allow the Kerry campaign to be briefed on the soon-to-be-released tape until late in the day. The president knew about it early in the morning.)

If the Kerry campaign falls for this it would be the height of foolishness. In itself the bin Laden video is not a matter of controversy. What the president's campaign is trying to do is either goad the Kerry campaign into three days of passivity in the run-up to the election or fuss up a debate about the supposed outrageousness of Kerry's faulting the president for allowing bin Laden to remain at large. The Kerry folks should not play into that trap. The answer is to keep to the game-plan and remain on the offensive.

The foreign policy focus of the Kerry campaign has long been the president's failure to maintain the focus on al Qaida, as evidenced by his failure to capture bin Laden and dismantle his network. To abandon that message now would be insanity.

If you're a Democrat and you notice your fellow Democrats dipping into these spasms of fecklessness and weak-kneedism, as I've described above, I strongly encourage you to slap them around a few times and tell them to get a hold of themselves. If you're experiencing such spasms, by all means, slap yourself a few times and tell yourself the same thing.

More than 95% of the electorate has already made up its mind. This is all about how those last few percentage points of the electorate break. And that will be determined by which campaign holds the initiative, stays on the offensive for the next three days and who can mobilize their forces to win this on the ground.

Kerry, the candidate, must be forward-looking in these final days. But his surrogates should be hammering the president for his failure to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora and pressing the factual case that his campaign has tried so hard to deny. On hitting the indisputable failures of the president there should be no let up.

At every turn, toughness and fight have been the subtext of this election. Who has it and who doesn't. The Bush message is that all of the president's mistakes pale in comparison to the fact of his toughness and steely resolve. The conceit of the Kerry campaign and the Democrats is that they're every bit as tough as the president and his party, and more.

Now's the time for them to show it.

An update on the

An update on the Bush rules of engagement. <$NoAd$>From AFP ...

Speaking to reporters outside the campaign rally here, White House communications director Dan Bartlett said that the tape should not affect the way Bush campaigns but that Kerry should have marked a 12-hour truce.

"You would think that there would be a, maybe, 12 hours to let the American absorb what has just happened today," he said.

Prodded on why, if the tape ought not to affect the campaign, Kerry should have stopped criticizing the president, Bartlett revised his statement, saying that the problem was that Kerry's attack had been "discredited."

There's nothing, it seems, they won't game.

A few more thoughts

A few more thoughts on what this all might mean.

To a significant degree we're in zero sum game mode at this late stage of the campaign. The dynamic this week has been in Kerry's favor consistently. So anything that upsets that dynamic helps Bush.

I know the consensus among pundits is that this is a godsend for Bush and that it will rekindle and put people in the mind of the period of national unity after 9/11. I'm certainly not sure but I strongly suspect that's not true.

Were bin Laden to turn the election for Bush, it would be fitting since he and Bush have fed off each others' power for more than three years.

But I don't think the public's mind right now will react to bin Laden's reemergence in way people did in 2001, 2002 or even through much of 2003. Or in the way many in the press expect.

A lot has changed.

We'll know soon enough.

I just spoke to

I just spoke to al Qaida expert Peter Bergen.

He mentioned the following things about the OBL tape. Bergen noted that this is the first time we've seen an unambiguously datable tape from bin Laden since December 2001. Whatever injuries he may have sustained on the escape from Afghanistan (remember the lame arm) is clearly healed. And though he still looks older than his forty-seven years, he looks robust and hardly haggard.

As for the Tora Bora issue, Bergen suggests that there were probably more journalists on the ground at Tora Bora than American troops.

Kerry on the new

Kerry on the new OBL video ...

In response to this tape from Osama bin Laden, let me make it clear, crystal clear. As Americans, we are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists. 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.

From the airport at West Palm.

Can you say cult

Can you say 'cult of personality'?

Chris Suellentrop has a <$NoAd$>half bizarre/half chilling report from the campaign trail in Florida last night. It's about what seems to be a new feature of the Bush rallies: the pledge of allegiance to President Bush.

Here's Chris ...

"I want you to stand, raise your right hands," and recite "the Bush Pledge," said Florida state Sen. Ken Pruitt. The assembled mass of about 2,000 in this Treasure Coast town about an hour north of West Palm Beach dutifully rose, arms aloft, and repeated after Pruitt: "I care about freedom and liberty. I care about my family. I care about my country. Because I care, I promise to work hard to re-elect, re-elect George W. Bush as president of the United States."

I know the Bush-Cheney campaign occasionally requires the people who attend its events to sign loyalty oaths, but this was the first time I have ever seen an audience actually stand and utter one. Maybe they've replaced the written oath with a verbal one.

I believe in one father, one son and one other son, who's now governor of Florida, who will take over after this son retires from office in 2009.

Too bad the Bush

Too bad the Bush team blew it at Tora Bora.

It's been more than three years. Why is bin Laden still on the loose?

So how does this

So how does this new bin Laden tape play politically in the US?

I'm really not sure.

Republicans are already trying to play this, as Drudge says now on his site, as bin Laden "campaign[ing] against Bush."

A friend tells me that the Bush-propaganda-organ Fox News is calling it bin Laden's 'endorsement' of Kerry.

On the other hand, this cuts against the Bush administration's frequent suggestions that al Qaida has been routed or that bin Laden may in fact be dead.

Much depends of course on how the press plays it. I notice for instance that as of 4:37 PM on MSNBC the front page headline momentarily had bin Laden saying "Bush cannot protect America" before correcting it to read "neither Bush nor Kerry can protect America."

[ed. note: That observation is from a rushed clicking back and forth over their site. So let me make that subject to possible later correction. But that's how it appeared.]

Clearly, Kerry has to hit the ground with a tough and emphatic statement in response to this and gear up his team's operation to go head-to-head with what will no doubt be a desperate Bush campaign's effort to use this to connect Kerry and bin Laden to shift the pro-Kerry momentum of the race in the final days of the campaign.

It seems to me that Kerry should tell voters what he's been telling them for months. That he'll take the fight to bin Laden, that he won't get distracted the way the president has, and that the one thing this tape shows is that the president hasn't gotten the job done.

If he had, there'd be no bin Laden to be making these tapes.