Sep 28, 2004
He was Public Enemy No. 1 three years ago -- "wanted dead or alive" -- before receding from the spotlight when the United States invaded Iraq to oust dictator Saddam Hussein.
Now Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda henchmen are resurfacing in presidential campaign commercials, including a flurry of hard- hitting spots within the last week in battleground states.
President Bush and his Republican allies have used the terrorist images to paint Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts as a weak leader. A pro-Democratic group has used photographs of 15 Saudi-born hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 plot in advertisements that highlight ties between Bush and the Saudi royal family. The Democratic National Committee unveiled an ad Monday that suggests Bush slacked off the hunt for Bin Laden after he declared in September 2001 that he wanted the Al Qaeda leader killed or captured.
These campaign thrusts are potent but risky, analysts say. Democrats could be forcing the electorate to focus on an issue that is an apparent Bush strength: domestic security. But Republicans, if they overplay the terrorist threat, could remind voters that Bin Laden himself is still at large. Whatever the fallout, there is little doubt the ads stand out in the thickening blizzard of political commercials.
"Fear works," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political advertising historian who is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "It gets people's attention. And it prompts quick inferences and it diminishes analytical processing."
In some cases, fear has helped politicians get elected. In 1964, President Johnson used the image of a nuclear mushroom cloud to tar Republican challenger Barry Goldwater as reckless at a time when many voters feared a Soviet missile strike.
In 1988, Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush benefited from an ad that showed a picture of a convicted murderer named Willie Horton. That spot portrayed Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis as soft on crime because Horton was on a prison furlough program in the Democrat's home state of Massachusetts when he savagely raped a Maryland woman.
This year, Democrats and Republicans are dueling over who is, or is not, soft on terrorism. And Bin Laden is a handy icon.
The Al Qaeda leader actually surfaced in TV commercials in the 2002 congressional campaign. Republicans used his image to attack Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) for opposing a Bush homeland security bill. Cleland, who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War, was defeated and Democrats were outraged at what they called a smear tactic against a patriot.
In late 2003, Bin Laden popped up again in Iowa in a commercial that attacked former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean during the Democratic presidential caucus campaign. That ad, produced by a shadowy group unaffiliated formally with any of Dean's rivals, prompted much controversy. It was, however, not necessarily a major reason Dean lost Iowa.
In March, one of Bush's opening salvos against Kerry used images of furtive-looking men, suggestive of terrorists, to portray the Democrat as soft on security. In July, the president went a step further with an ad that actually linked pictures of Kerry with pictures of Bin Laden and declared that Kerry did not have a viable plan against terrorism.
Over the weekend, a pro-Bush group known as Progress for America Voter Fund launched a new ad in Wisconsin and Iowa that shows Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. It then shows a graphic sequence of terrorist carnage against schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia, a bombed-out passenger train in Madrid and ground zero at the World Trade Center. Kerry is then shown in the ad as an advocate of cuts in defense and intelligence spending -- a claim the Democrats deny.
Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford University political scientist who tracks campaign ads, said the ad appeared to play to a Republican strength. It dovetailed with recent campaign statements by Vice President Dick Cheney, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and others that suggest a vote for Kerry would make the country more vulnerable to terrorist strikes.
"My guess is, they've shown the ad to focus groups, and that ad is much more likely to get action on the [response] dial," Iyengar said. "Having terrorism on voters' minds as they walk into the voting booth is the Republican strategy, and they've been very effective." But Evan Tracey, an ad analyst for TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group in Virginia, said Republicans were walking a fine line. He called Bin Laden imagery "a use-it-at-your-own-risk message."
Jamieson said the latest Bin Laden ad had a "high risk of backfiring." Democrats were quick to counterattack the Progress for America ad. The Kerry campaign announced a response ad Saturday that accused Bush and Cheney of "playing politics with the war on terror." Two days later, the DNC struck back harder. Its ad, using a Bin Laden image, criticizes Bush through his own words. It quotes the president on Sept. 17, 2001, as saying, "There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said: 'Wanted -- Dead or Alive.' " It then quotes him on March 13, 2002, as saying of Bin Laden: "I don't know where he is.... I truly am not that concerned about him." Democratic officials said the ad would debut today in Iowa and Wisconsin.
At the same time, an anti-Bush group called the Media Fund is airing spots in St. Louis and elsewhere that show Saudi-born hijackers, Saudi leaders and Bush. Republicans call the ad a smear against Bush.
The ads are part of a culminating barrage of commercials in what is already a record-setting year. From March through Saturday, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group data compiled for The Times, Bush and his allies had spent more than $131 million on TV, including $8.8 million last week. Kerry and other Democratic- leaning groups spent more than $213 million -- including $9.9 million last week. Four years ago, the analysis group identified about $200 million worth of presidential campaign ads.
For Kerry, the latest pro-Democratic ads amplify his claim that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a diversion from the drive to get Bin Laden. Last week in West Palm Beach, Fla., the Democratic nominee described the Al Qaeda leader as "Osama Been Forgotten." Bush typically does not mention Bin Laden on the campaign trail, preferring to dwell on the imprisonment of former Iraqi President Hussein. He made no mention of Bin Laden during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
Whether Bush and Kerry will use Bin Laden in their closing wave of campaign ads is unclear. They may be content to let allies do so. Kerry campaign strategist Tad Devine said only: "As we get closer to the election, the advertising you'll see from us will have more of an edge to it." Bush strategist Matthew Dowd declined to comment.