Terror, Iraq Could Jolt Bush-Kerry Race

"People in our line of work are joking that they probably have bin Laden now, [that] they're keeping him in the basement of the White House, [and] they're going to spring him on Oct. 15," Polsby says -- adding that while his colleagues don't really believe the joke is true, it reflects what may be the best timing for Bush.

"You wouldn't want to capture him too soon," Fiorina says. "You'd want it to happen a little closer to the election, say late summer or fall."

But even if news of bin Laden's capture comes early in the campaign, Johnson sees a potential wild card that could stretch out good news for Bush -- the Bush-Cheney campaign's coffers, which dwarf the money raised so far by Kerry and the Democrats.

"Let's say for instance [bin Laden]'s caught tomorrow and we have a hoopla for about two weeks, and then people start to forget about it," Johnson says. If you're Bush, "you don't let people forget about it."

It might not pay to discount even older news.

"We're going to be reminded in those $150 million of TV ads that are coming down the pike … that the people of Iraq were rescued from a dictator who's in custody," Johnson says.

The Economy

However, some wonder if the public's perception of the economy and jobs could yet trump all foreign news.

"If bin Laden is captured next Tuesday, it's a big boost for Bush, but by November it could be meaningless; if he is captured in October it could be big for Bush," Greenberg says. "But if he is captured in October and the economy is bad, who knows?"

Few predict sudden transformative events stemming from the economy, but rather powerful momentum for one candidate or the other leading up to Election Day. The perception of an improving economy benefits Bush, and negative news or stagnation helps Kerry.

"It's a corrosive, gradual issue more than an explosive one," Johnson says. "You have people who have the nagging feeling that they're going to be the next one laid off."

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