Waiting for the ‘October Surprise’
October 25, 2004
WASHINGTON (AP) – An “October surprise” is part of the political folklore of presidential campaigns, and just eight days before the election, the unexpected is indeed happening.
Monday’s disclosure that 80-year-old Chief Justice William Rehnquist has thyroid cancer immediately propelled the Supreme Court and the hot-button abortion issue onto the front burner, while the revelation about the looting of 377 tons of high explosives in Iraq gave John Kerry an opening to accuse President Bush of “incredible incompetence.”
In a tight race, Kerry and Bush are both on guard for outside events large and small that could not have been anticipated. Rehnquist’s illness and discussions of his legacy recalled his pivotal vote four years ago in the decision that gave Bush the presidency after a disputed election outcome.
Traditionally, an October surprise is seen as a last-minute trick up the sleeve of the party in power to influence the election’s outcome, such as Henry Kissinger saying in 1972 that peace was at hand in Vietnam as his boss, Richard Nixon, sought re-election.
But as Monday’s news demonstrated, surprise developments can emerge outside of anyone’s control and can just as easily work against the incumbent.
Kerry seized on the news about hundreds of tons of missing explosives in Iraq to try to undercut Bush’s claim that he is best qualified to protect Americans and lead the war against terror.
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International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei blamed the loss on a “lack of security.”
Kerry said Bush had “miscalculated about how to go to war, miscalculated about the numbers of troops that we would need, miscalculated about sending young Americans to war without the armor they needed, without the Humvees they needed that were armored.”
Bush shot back, “My opponent has the wrong strategy for the wrong country at the wrong time.”
In the highly charged political atmosphere of the final days, Kerry’s camp suggested the administration had leaked news of Rehnquist’s hospitalization to divert attention away from the missing-weapons story.
White House officials laughed off the idea.
Rehnquist’s hospitalization reminded voters that the next president, in all likelihood, will have the opportunity to name one or more Supreme Court justices who will deal with divisive social issues such as abortion, affirmative action, gay rights and religion. Eight of the nine are 65 or older.