Democrats prepare for unknown

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 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.

Both sides know the possibilities: a major setback in Iraq or Afghanistan, a terrorist strike against the United States, a nuclear test by North Korea, an economic shock.

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.

Democrat John Kerry made the failure to track down bin Laden a central part of his criticism of Bush in Thursday's first presidential debate. The Massachusetts senator claimed that Bush lost sight of that goal when he ordered the invasion of Iraq.

Some conspiracy buffs suggest bin Laden already has been captured or perhaps has been trapped by Pakistan in a cave, and will be produced just before the Nov. 2 election.

No matter how far fetched, some Democrats have helped add to the speculation.

''I think it would be outrageous, frankly, but you know, there's those kind of rumors out there,'' former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told ABC.

Even if bin Laden remains elusive, the capture of a major terrorist leader -- bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahri or Iraq's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of a militant group that has claimed to have beheaded two American hostages -- could provide an October boost for Bush.

But Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said the administration risks a backlash.

''Producing a high-level al-Qaida leader would immediately invite suspicion about whether this person has been cooling his heels in a safe house some place,'' Baker said.

Perhaps the best late campaign season development might not be an actual surprise in Iraq, but a decline in the violence there.

Bush is no stranger to October surprises; his family has been on the receiving end.

The revelation of Bush's drunken-driving arrest as a young man came right before the 2000 election.

The Friday before the 1992 election, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who served in the Reagan and first Bush administration, was indicted in the Democratic-inspired investigation of the Iran-Contra affair. That posed yet another worry for the elder Bush's re-election bid, which failed.

Usually speculated-upon October surprises fail to materialize. There was talk that the Carter administration would produce a deal in 1980 to free the U.S. hostages in Iran. In 1968 and again in 1972 came speculation that a deal to end the war in Vietnam might be at hand.

Yet the Suez Canal crisis in the fall of 1956 contributed to Dwight Eisenhower's re-election landslide, historians suggest.

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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