WASHINGTON – No president or presidential candidate ever commanded his own fate, but this year's White House race may be unusually capricious.
The political fortunes of President Bush and Democrat John Kerry are largely out of their control, pinned to unpredictable outcomes in Iraq, the vagaries of the economy and the fight against terrorism.
"There's a lot more that can't be controlled than can," said David Danbom, history professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
That did not stop Bush from spending $40 million on television and radio commercials in just one month to champion his fight against terrorism and cast Kerry as a tax-raising waffler.
Nor did it give Kerry pause as he spent $6 million in the same period to answer Bush's charges and accuse him of neglecting the economy. Democratic interest groups spent an additional $14 million to go negative on Bush.
Both candidates spent additional millions on polling, travel and consultants. And yet, no amount of money protects them from the unexpected:
--Will violence ebb in Iraq before Nov. 2?
--Will the economy bounce back in a way that voters notice?
--Will terrorism hit America's shores again? If so, would Americans rally behind the commander in chief or blame him?
"We don't know the answers to those questions," said GOP consultant Joe Gaylord. "We don't even know all the questions."
One uncertainty is the state of the economy, which voters say is their priority. Polls show that Kerry is trusted over Bush to increase employment in an economy that has lost 2.2 million jobs since the president took office.
Democrats hope the issue helps lead to Bush's defeat, as it did his father's in 1992.
"It's probably not an easy thing for the president to acknowledge that the most significant events of the day are simply out of his control," said Jim Jordan, Kerry's former campaign manager who now speaks for a cluster of independent groups dedicated to defeating Bush.
"Voters hold the president accountable for the state of the world and the state of the economy," he said. "Like it or not, he is tied to events in Iraq and events in the economy. And, unfortunately for him, a clear majority of voters clearly think the country is headed in the wrong direction."
Jordan speaks for the Media Fund, which is airing an ad critical of Bush's $87 billion reconstruction plan for Iraq and Afghanistan. The announcer says that money could be used to build new schools in America, hire teachers, rebuild the electrical grid and give children health insurance. Then, in a final dig at Bush, the announcer says: "Shouldn't America be his top priority?"
But Democrats could not have predicted that the ad would start running the same day good economic news emerged. Some 308,000 jobs were created in March, the Labor Department reported Friday.
Kerry and fellow Democrats had long dismissed a steady decline in the unemployment rate, pointing instead to the loss of jobs. Suddenly, they faced a reversal of fortunes, better-than-expected production of jobs coupled with a slight increase in the unemployment rate.
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush needs robust job growth before Nov. 2. While "all the ingredients are in place," including low interest rates and tax cuts, "there's not a lot left that people can do to influence it," he said.
Bush required a dose of good news because all his efforts to change the subject from the economy to terrorism seemed poised to backfire.
Former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke accused the Bush administration of ignoring terrorist threats; Bush bowed to pressure and allowed national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify before the Sept. 11 commission; and the murder and mutilation of four U.S. contractors near Baghdad cast the U.S. occupation of Iraq in grisly terms.
Credibility is the cornerstone of any president's re-election bid, and Democrats contend they have raised questions about Bush's. One Democratic expectation is that Clarke's accusations erode Bush's tough-on-terrorism image and, in a worst-case scenario, ring true should terrorists strike again.
Danbom, the North Dakota professor, said Bush has more control than Kerry because of the powers of incumbency.
"The president can have more impact in international affairs than those affairs can on him. I'm sure Democrats worry about an October surprise, the popping up of Osama bin Laden or something of that sort," Danbom said.
"Any kind of aggression overseas, which the government can do at anytime, would produce a rallying around the flag and, perhaps, rallying around the president," he said.