On the eve of a presidential contest, late-breaking events can have an outsize impact. While nothing has risen to the level of a blockbuster "October surprise" - the term coined from the 1980 race, when Democrats feared Ronald Reagan and his friends were secretly arranging to delay the release of the US hostages in Iran until after the election - this has been an October of mini-surprises.
Four days of charges and countercharges over the disappearance of 380 tons of explosives in Iraq have given Sen. John Kerry the kind of final-week run every challenger craves. Even if it's impossible to pinpoint whether Senator Kerry is winning votes over the issue, President Bush is on the defensive, knocked off-message.
The Bush team had laid out a week focusing on leadership, culminating in a speech Friday on security, couched in new, more personal terms. The president also made a pitch for conservative Democrats, appearing on the stump with Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia.
But the president himself kept the political angle of the explosives story alive this week, as he broke his silence and responded to Kerry's accusations that he was avoiding responsibility.
Bush accused Kerry of making "wild charges." And though many facts indeed remain murky - such as whether the explosives disappeared before or after the US invaded Iraq - nuance rarely figures into the final days of a presidential campaign. Bush supporters have questioned the timing of the leaked information, first published in Monday's New York Times.
The sparring continued Thursday. "This week Senator Kerry is again attacking the actions of our military in Iraq, with complete disregard for the facts," Bush said in a speech in Saginaw, Mich. "Senator Kerry will say anything to get elected."
The Kerry campaign issued an immediate response: "George Bush's hypocrisy knows no bounds. On the same day that his top surrogate blames the troops for the missing explosives, the president has the audacity to cast stones at John Kerry."
The "top surrogate" was a reference to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who said Thursday on NBC's "Today Show" that "the actual responsibility" for finding the explosives "really would be for the troops that were there."
By Election Day, there are likely to be no firm answers on the missing munitions. But the issue will surely be part of the daily chatter from here on out, as each side seeks to one-up the other - unless something really big does happen. Other "mini-surprises" this month that have worked against the president include the flu-vaccine shortage, oil prices, and a stock market below 10,000.
How an attack would figure in
For months, though, a regular feature of campaign analysis has been whether a real October surprise could tilt the race dramatically in one direction or another. Two big points of speculation centered on a potential capture of Osama bin Laden or another terrorist attack on American soil.
At this point, analysts say, if Mr. Bin Laden were captured, it might actually work against Bush. It would look too much as if the capture had been timed for election eve - and if so, why hadn't the Al Qaeda leader been captured or killed sooner, given the threat to America he continues to pose?
An election-eve terrorist attack, which US security officials have long warned of, is a possibility so terrible to contemplate that most politicians shy away from it. And the question of who would be helped - Bush or Kerry - seems so craven as to be almost unmentionable as well.
At this point, "that's one for metaphysicians, not for pundits," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "What it comes down to is this: Is [an attack] happening because this is the nature of the war we are in and it vindicates what the president has been saying? Or does it say, how did he let this happen again? That's something nobody can answer."
Professor Baker suggests that if Margaret Hassan, the kidnapped chief of CARE International in Iraq, is executed, that could be a decisive factor for Bush, since it reminds voters of the nature of America's enemies - and of his determination to track them down.
But on a much more mundane note, Baker prefers to consider what he used to think would be this election's October surprise: a decision by independent candidate Ralph Nader to drop out of the race. Even though Mr. Nader is polling only 1 to 3 percent in national polls, in such a close race, his numbers in battleground states where his name appears on the ballot still make the Kerry team nervous. Now, Nader seems committed to his candidacy for the duration.
Four years ago, the late-breaking news that might have swayed votes was the revelation - five days before Election Day - that Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in 1976. Some analysts believe that story might have cost Bush the popular vote, particularly by discouraging some evangelical Christians from turning out to vote. Bush adviser Karl Rove often speaks of 4 million evangelicals who didn't turn out in 2000, votes he hopes to capture in 2004.
In the 1980 case, a congressional task force later concluded that Reagan did not arrange a deal to release the hostages. The theory at the time was that the Republicans were concerned that President Jimmy Carter, whose administration was already negotiating for the hostages' release, would get them out just before the election.
In the end, there was another October surprise of sorts that may have tilted the race. The one and only presidential debate between Reagan and President Carter was held Oct. 28, 1980, mere days before the election. Reagan used the spotlight to his advantage - and turned a neck-and-neck race into a comfortable victory over the incumbent.