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A day of loss raises the stakes


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 14, 2000

Those words have long described the lay of the land heading into a presidential election that promises to be extremely close.

Now they can't be spoken with quite as much confidence as they were just a few days ago, and that could affect whether George W. Bush or Al Gore becomes the next president.

On a single day, three Israeli soldiers were killed by Palestinians as the Mideast crisis teetered on the brink of full-scale war. American sailors were killed by suicide bombers during a refueling stop in the Mideast country of Yemen.

At home, the stock market plummeted and oil prices rose. Home Depot acknowledged it hasn't been selling nearly enough plywood, leaf blowers and power drills to meet earnings expectations.

Those developments bumped the post-debate spin from the presidential campaigns to Friday's back pages. They also may alter the direction of the race, although it would be naive to make any bold predictions with the Middle East and the economy so fluid.

After all, the Dow bounced back Friday and rose 157.6 points after falling nearly 380 points a day earlier.

But Thursday's events are a reminder that the unexpected could still affect the presidential race just 24 days before the election. The loss of life in the Mideast and the loss of profits combine to create a sense of unease.

Flags flew at half-staff Friday for the dead American soldiers. A Tampa radio station played patriotic songs and urged commuters to turn on their headlights. And third-quarter mutual fund reports arriving in mailboxes were nothing to celebrate.

How voters react to their uneasiness could turn the election.

For Gore, the events of the week could underscore that the Clinton administration's efforts to negotiate a Mideast peace settlement have failed. They could renew questions about military preparedness, even though no administration can guarantee it could prevent terrorist attacks. And it could undercut the vice president's argument that economic prosperity could continue only if he is elected.

For Bush, there could be renewed questions about his lack of foreign policy experience. His opportunity to build momentum from his better-than-expected debate performance has been lost. And his dogged support of large tax cuts could be characterized as even riskier in an economy that may not be as rosy.

There is a modest comparison to the 1980 campaign, when voters decided to replace Jimmy Carter with Ronald Reagan.

While American hostages have not been held for months, the world appears more dangerous and uncertain than it did a week ago. While there is not double-digit inflation or high unemployment, there are concerns about rising gas and fuel oil prices as well as the direction of the stock market.

The atmosphere rekindles speculation about an "October surprise," a phrase that originated during the 1980 race. Reagan supporters first feared Carter would time a deal to win release of the hostages on the eve of the election. Later there was speculation that Reagan and George Bush had persuaded Iran to delay the release of the 52 hostages until after the election so Carter would be deprived of any advantage.

The hostages were freed hours after Reagan's January 1981 inauguration, and a congressional investigation later concluded there was no credible evidence to support claims that Reagan and Bush cut a deal.

The crises that undermined Carter had festered much longer and had created a deeper sense of powerlessness than the events of last week.

"I don't think you can even begin to compare the emotional reaction, even to the attack on the ship, with what was going on with the American hostages, which was going on and on and on," said Jody Powell, the former Carter administration spokesman, in an interview Friday. "Unfortunately, we have had so many instances of terrorism and hostage-taking and that sort of thing directed against American citizens since 1980 that they don't produce the same intensity and reaction of emotions as that one did."

The Middle East crisis is different too, he said. The Cold War is over and the threat that such a conflict could trigger a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union is gone.

"You always had that lurking in the background, and this doesn't," Powell said. "Without diminishing how serious and how tragic it is, it is not likely this is going to lead to blowing up the world."

Democrats think Gore will have an advantage in voters' minds as they consider the rising international tensions, citing his experience in foreign policy issues.

"You need a steady hand," said Karl Koch, a Florida strategist for Gore. "One of the things to ask is, does experience count?"

Republicans hope attentive voters also will remember retired Gen. Colin Powell may join Bush's administration and that former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney is his running mate. Both played key roles in the Persian Gulf War.

"If they end up with a peace accord at Camp David two weeks from now, it helps them," Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said of the Democrats. "If this gets worse and there is a lot of political pandering, it will help us."

The rhetoric over the economy is sharper.

Cardenas said the latest Dow dip fits a recent pattern and suggested Wall Street is nervous about Gore's spending plans, a new twist on political spin. Koch countered that the economy remains strong, unemployment is still low and Bush's tax cuts would jeopardize prosperity.

For now, though, such back-and-forth between the presidential campaigns has taken a backseat to the Middle East and the economy.

There is a new sense of uneasiness in the world this morning, and it may make voters more aware of the stakes on Nov. 7.

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