NEW YORK – The mystery surrounding what happened to 377 tons of Iraqi explosives has all the markings of an "October Surprise," a late campaign issue that consumes much of the public battle for the White House.
All week, John Kerry (search) has seized on reports of missing ammunition from the Al-Qaqaa (search) arms storage facility as a symbol of what he described as the Bush administration's failed policies in Iraq. In response, President Bush (search) has blasted Kerry for being reckless with his facts, charging that it's a sign the challenger would be a reckless commander in chief.
Political experts said Friday they didn't expect the issue to sway the presidential election one way or the other, but several said it doesn't help Bush's case for re-election.
"Whenever you're responding to your opponent, that's not a good thing and I think this story has hurt George Bush," said John Kasich, a former Republican congressman from Ohio and host of FOX News' "The Heartland." The real partisans are digging in … for those people who have been a little bit shaky, I think it does help John Kerry, but the story keeps going on and keeps changing every five minutes."
Added former Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, also a Republican: "I think it's sort of not good for the home team but again there's confusion and chaos in war … these things happen but I'm not really sure it will affect many voters."
The Kerry camp leaped on this week's revelation about tons of explosives that disappeared from the Al-Qaqaa arms storage facility, located south of Baghdad. Democrats have charged that the incident is just another example of Bush's inability to rule as commander in chief, while the Republicans have charged the Kerry campaign with running with a story that's been doubted by even their own foreign policy advisers.
A new wrinkle emerged Friday, as a U.S. Army officer came forward and said a team from the 3rd Infantry Division took about 250 tons of munitions and military material from Al-Qaqaa soon after Saddam Hussein's regime fell last year.
The Pentagon believes the disclosure helps to explain what happened to the dangerous material that the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) said disappeared after Saddam's regime fell.
Regardless of the details, Republicans have charged that Kerry shouldn't be running with a story on the campaign trail when even his own advisers have expressed doubts about the situation and more information continues to surface.
"There's a lot we don't know and I think that's what tells a lot about John Kerry," Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Reed Dickens said of the Massachusetts senator using the issue to "score political points."
"He's never let the facts get in the way and this is one good example of this," Dickens told FOX News. "John Kerry made a political attack when he did not know all the facts and I think what you saw today is that the military is doing a very superb job and has this under control."
The GOP is insinuating that the Kerry-Edwards camp ran with the weapons ball because their candidate doesn't have a record to run on.
"We're very curious — what was their message supposed to be this week had they not ripped from the [New York Times] headlines" the story of the missing ammunitions, Dickens said.
Lanny Davis, a White House counsel in the Clinton administration, said that because Bush took the United States to war based on the idea that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, he has to own up to snafus surrounding such weapons.
"He's got to take responsibility as commander in chief — what we know is the munitions that were in those munitions bunkers were not secured by U.S. troops — that's a fact not disputed by the Bush government," Davis said. "If President Bush doesn't take responsibility as commander in chief for this, then what will he take responsibility for?"
A former assistant deputy for Bush, Chris Henick, said Bush isn't on the defensive, however, on this issue.
"What else should we expect from John Kerry in this final week … when his campaign's been full of pessimism?" Henick said.
But Democrats argue that no matter who was responsible for taking the ammunition from the plant or what exactly the situation was surrounding the ammunition "disappearance," the confusion surrounding the incident is more a testament to Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq.
"It's not this in and of itself," that proves Bush is unfit as commander in chief, said Democratic strategist Bob Beckel. It's what is "perceived to be a series of blunders by this administration in Iraq."
One question remains as to what effect the issue that's still developing could have on voters.
"I think they [voters] should take away one thing — it's fully clear the full things aren't in on this but we have a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America making a claim on one of the biggest issues of our time ... on incomplete data," Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of the swing state of Minnesota, told FOX News on Friday. "This should disturb voters very much that John Kerry would pounce on this for political gain … when the facts aren't in … it shows a streak of recklessness."
Pollsters from both sides of the political aisle say that this late in the election game, the issue likely won't resonate with the party faithful but could have an affect on the undecideds.
"There are so many twists and turns in this story already that I think it makes it difficult for people to follow along. It has the potential to make a difference on Election Day but there's so much he-said, she-said," said Republican pollster John McHenry. "With this development, I think it makes it harder for voters to say one way or the other" what effect it would have.
McHenry postulated, however, that perhaps it's not wise for the Kerry camp to focus on Iraq, since Bush continues to lead his Democratic challenger when it comes to security issues, but that more of a focus on the economy could help him in his White House bid.
"So the extent that it's [the focus is] on Iraq and there's some muddying of the water, I don't know if it hurts the president," McHenry said.
Democratic pollster Dave Beattie agreed that the weapons debacle isn't more than "background noise" in the election, but what that noise does do is shift the focus back to the unrosy happenings going on in Iraq.
"There's something there that's not right — there's some sort of turmoil in Iraq and that does resonate with some swing voters in the country," Beattie said.