Campaign finale may see October surprises

Sunday, October 3, 2004

WASHINGTON -- In the presidential campaign's closing weeks, Democrats are bracing for an "October Surprise," an event so dramatic it could influence the election's outcome. The capture of Osama bin Laden, for instance.

It's part of American political lore: the party out of power worries about a last-minute surprise engineered by the party in power. Now that October has arrived and the election is just a month away, speculation is rife among Democrats that President Bush and political mastermind Karl Rove have some tricks up their sleeves.

"I assume that it will be something," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "We have to be ready for that."

With the war in Iraq going badly and people concerned about terrorism, there also seems to be a better than usual chance for a significant event beyond either party's control.

Three years after Bush said he wanted bin Laden "dead or alive," the capture of the fugitive al-Qaida leader tops nearly everyone's list as a supreme example of the kind of October surprise that could help seal Bush's re-election.

As Election Day draws nearer, Bush's options for election-influencing actions are dwindling.

With three tax cuts under his belt, there is not enough time for a new stimulus if the economy takes a sudden turn for the worse, perhaps reflected in a bad jobs report on Oct. 8. -- the last unemployment report before the election -- or in a stock market swoon.

Bush could release more crude oil from the national reserve to combat rising fuel prices. But he accused President Clinton of doing just that to help Democrat Al Gore right before the 2000 election. And Bush already has used some of those reserves to help refiners offset hurricane losses -- with little impact on rising fuel prices.

One "Hail Mary" pass could be for Vice President Dick Cheney to leave the ticket -- perhaps to be replaced by a popular moderate such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Republican strategists scoff at such talk.

But if Bush starts to fall behind, he and his advisers might want to try harder to reach out to moderates who dislike Cheney intensely. Cheney, who has had four heart attacks, could cite health concerns.

"The notion is that the October surprise is a Halloween trick for politicians. But the strongest possibility this time is something happening that nobody controls," said Princeton political science professor Fred Greenstein.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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