GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- The way the Bush campaign handled the Osama bin Laden videotape late last week was a textbook example of how President Bush's message machine can seize control of the news cycle -- and insulate Bush from political damage.
The strategy came together quickly, while Bush traveled with his top aides on a quick flight to Columbus, Ohio, on Friday afternoon, moments after Bush spoke from the tarmac in Toledo. While Bush was in the air, comments Senator John F. Kerry made to a Milwaukee television station earlier in the day began airing widely, and the machine whirled into action. Kerry had said nothing particularly new. He was a charge he had made at almost all his campaign events -- that Bush had passed up a chance to capture bin Laden in late 2001 at Tora Bora, by relying on ''Afghan warlords" rather than US troops to try to capture the terrorism leader.
Campaign headquarters called Air Force One to tell Bush aides about the interview. Within minutes of arriving at the campaign event in Columbus, the White House communications director, Dan Bartlett, sought out reporters to say that Kerry's comments had crossed the line. Bartlett called them a ''sign of desperation" that Kerry would seek political advantage in the sudden reappearance of bin Laden on television sets.
As Bartlett continued to spin in a small lounge off the floor of the Nationwide Arena, Bush himself weighed in at a rally for 20,000 supporters, delivering a line that had been hastily drafted on the plane. He called Kerry's Tora Bora criticism ''the worst kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking," and added a new zinger: ''It is especially shameful in the light of a new tape from America's enemy."
Although Kerry aides busily explained that the senator wasn't making political hay out of the new tape, any advantage the Massachusetts Democrat may have derived from the bin Laden tape was neutralized.
Kerry aides organized a conference call for reporters at 9:30 p.m. that evening, where senior Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart sought to minimize the damage. Yesterday, Bush aides gloated that they had forced the Kerry camp to work overtime.
The Kerry campaign ''obviously lost the news cycle," Nicolle Devenish, the Bush campaign's communications director, said yesterday in Grand Rapids, where the president held his first rally of the day.
Kerry campaign officials sharply disputed that assessment. Campaign spokesman Phil Singer said the episode fit a pattern where the Bush campaign attacks when it feels vulnerable.
''We are not on the defensive in any way, shape, or form," he said. Indeed, Kerry kept references to bin Laden and Tora Bora in his stump speech yesterday.
In the late-night conference call with reporters, Lockhart accused the Bush campaign of being the first to politicize the tape.
''Every member of their staff went into overdrive talking to people like you, talking about what a political outrage this was," Lockhart said. ''Now, we agree with him, there is something shameful -- shameful on the part" of Bush.
Each side accused the other of starting the fight. Both sides seized on a chance to talk about the effort against terror in the final stretch of the campaign.
Bush wants the focus on national security, calculating that if voters cast ballots based on who will keep them safest, he's more likely to win. For Kerry, the videotape is a reminder of a point he often makes on the stump: America's top enemy is alive and well despite Bush's leadership.
The Bush camp's spin changed the subject from the missing weapons in Iraq that had dominated the first part of the campaign's final week. And aides are hoping to turn Kerry mentions of bin Laden against him. ''You can judge people by how they react to events during a campaign, and his first reaction is to not be concerned about the facts, but to attack the president," Bartlett said.
Rick Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.