After the briefest pause in hostilities, aides to President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry seized on the re-emergence of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden on Friday to launch a fierce round of attacks -- each accusing the other of exploiting the matter for political gain.
"You would think there would be maybe 12 hours to let the American people absorb this," said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, after Kerry reiterated his criticism of Bush for failing to capture bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"It's offensive and shameful for this president to play politics the way he did today with this issue," retorted Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry strategist, after Bush assailed his Democratic rival for his remarks.
The exchange underscored the uncertainty introduced into the White House race by the late October surprise of the bin Laden tape and the scramble to capitalize on it -- or contain any potential political harm it might cause.
For all the anticipation of a last-minute campaign surprise -- most of it focused on another terrorist attack -- both sides appeared flummoxed at first when bin Laden intruded on an otherwise routine, if intense, campaign day.
Like so much else in this bitterly fought campaign, partisans split over its likely impact.
Republicans, some openly gleeful, saw the bin Laden tape helping Bush and hurting Kerry. Democrats, less assuredly, suggested the opposite.
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