WASHINGTON -- Until now, voters have been able to consider Al Gore and George W. Bush in relative peace and quiet. No more.
Middle East conflict and the attack on a U.S. warship, combined with some economic nervousness at home, are introducing unpredictable elements into the campaign and perhaps forcing people to look at Democrat Gore and Republican Bush in new ways, late in the game.
Whether the new elements will be consequential is beyond the understanding of both campaigns. At this point, they are bewildered over how the violence and disquiet might play in the Nov. 7 election -- as alert as campaigns always are for a so-called October surprise.
On one hand, Democrats consider Gore's years of experience as vice president a strength for him when matters overseas take a dangerous turn -- a point Republican strategists and supporters do not dispute.
''I can see how that might make people look at the candidates differently, like, 'Can they lead us at a time like this?''' Mike Scanlon, a Bush supporter and General Motors project manager, said while awaiting the Republican nominee's speech at a Pontiac, Mich., truck assembly plant.
Said Democrat Dennis Dochterman at a Gore event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: ''When there's uncertainty, people are less inclined to take a chance.''
On the other hand, it is a Clinton administration-mediated peace process that is falling apart between Israelis and Palestinians, and an economy that Gore has been running on that is causing some worries, with inflation up and the stock market swooning before rebounding Friday.
Gore strategists prefer smooth economic trends, public satisfaction with the nation's overall direction, and no rude shocks -- however unrelated to the campaign -- in newspaper headlines.
On Friday, a day after suspected terrorists blew a hole in the destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen, leaving 17 U.S. sailors dead, neither candidate was jousting outwardly for advantage.
The White House was playing it somewhat carefully, too, even while offering a platform for Gore to show his experience.
President Clinton's spokesman, Jake Siewert, welcomed Gore back as the candidate interrupted campaigning for a second day to join Clinton in meetings. But the White House did not exactly place him at the center of its crisis management.
''I think it was his decision to come back here,'' Siewert said. ''But the president ... always has appreciated his work on the Mideast peace process.''
While saying he'd let ''the experts'' decide whether the situation helps Gore, spokesman Chris Lehane took the occasion to trumpet the candidate's strengths.
''The bottom line is that he is involved because he has a wealth of experience on these issues,'' Lehane said while flying to Washington.
''He is a valuable part of the foreign policy team at the White House.''
Dick Cheney, Bush's running mate, cautioned against looking at the events through a political lens. ''It's a tragedy anytime lives are lost,'' he said. ''I don't think you can evaluate it in terms of political win or defeat for anybody.''
Given that Gore and Bush have not voiced major differences on Middle East policy, Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center questioned whether the violence there will mean much in the election.
Gore may have rushed back to Washington, ''but it's not as if he is being summoned home to find a way for peace, or to find a way to wage war,'' Kohut said.
A similar sentiment was voiced in Cedar Rapids by Gore supporter Chuck Silliman.
''I think this administration can bring some stability to things if anybody can,'' he said. ''But I'm also impressed with what Bush had to say about politics stopping at the water's edge.''
Kohut noted, however, that each day devoted to problems abroad is one less day for Gore to pitch his prescription drug plan, challenge Bush on taxes or otherwise tangle with the Republican on domestic issues where polls suggest he has an edge.
About three weeks are left for that, absent persistent distraction, after the candidates lie low for a few days to prepare for their final debate.
''What it might do is take attention away from the domestic issues and that, I think, would be bad news for Gore because he has more to gain from a focus on health care, Social Security, even taxes, than Bush does,'' Kohut said.
But presidential historian Henry Graff of Columbia University said: ''If we get into a critical situation, we're going to look for tried hands rather than new hands.''
As for October surprises, Republicans feared that President Carter would pull one off in 1980 by winning the release of American hostages in Iran in time to take credit from voters and turn a looming defeat into victory. He didn't.
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