msnbc.com
updated 5/27/2004 3:46:25 PM ET 2004-05-27T19:46:25

Al-Qaida rejoined the presidential contest this week as Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that terrorists are expected to attack the United States in the next few months.

“The Madrid railway bombings were perceived by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to have advanced their cause,” he said, referring to the March 11 bombing that killed nearly 200 and led to the surprise defeat of the candidate supported by U.S. ally former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

“Al Qaida may perceive that a large-scale attack in the United States this summer or fall would lead to similar consequences,” Ashcroft said.

A pre-election attack in the United States would take voters into the realm of the unknown.

Meanwhile, here’s a news bulletin you may have missed amid the recent headlines and TV news coverage of President Bush’s declining approval ratings: In the “if the election were held today” poll question, Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry are tied.

In the Gallup poll back in mid-February, Kerry was ahead of Bush in a two-man match, 55 percent to 43 percent.

Six point lead in March
Kerry was ahead of Bush by six points in a March three-way trial heat with Ralph Nader. But now Kerry is at 49 percent to Bush’s 47 percent, a statistical tie in the Gallup poll.

In this week’s Washington Post survey, Bush and Kerry were tied with 46 percent each. Nader drew four percent.

For some reason, these horse-race numbers got buried in paragraph six or seven of a lot of news stories in the past several days.

The conventional wisdom of the moment in Washington is that the president’s job approval numbers are what truly matters. And in the most recent Gallup survey, 47 percent of the respondents approve of Bush’s job performance compared to 66 percent last year at this time.

We recall that only last October, the conventional wisdom here in Washington was that Howard Dean would be the Democratic nominee. Bush and Kerry have five months to figure out whether the conventional wisdom of late May is the portent of Nov. 2.

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In White House Derby’s current estimate, Kerry remains just a half step ahead of Bush.

By historical precedent, an incumbent wartime president should be well ahead of his challenger.

In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt never lagged behind GOP challenger Thomas Dewey in Gallup polls. In May of 1972, Gallup had President Richard Nixon ahead of Democrat George McGovern by 19 percentage points. So Bush is lagging the performance of other wartime presidents.

Kerry's also an underperformer
But then again Kerry, too, is an underperformer.

Despite facing an embattled president pounded by weeks of bad news, he trails other challengers who faced wobbly incumbents. At a comparable point in 1976, Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter led President Gerald Ford by 13 points. Republican challenger Dewey led President Harry Truman by 11 points in May of 1948.

As for Nader, he is performing a useful service for Kerry by saying the anti-Bush things that are too pungent for Kerry himself to say.

“It's hard to find a more fitting reason to impeach a president under the high crimes and misdemeanors provision of the Constitution than plunging our nation into an unconstitutional, illegal war based on a platform of fabrication, deceptions and lies,'' Nader told a crowd in Canton, Conn., on Tuesday.

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