With polls showing Democrat John Kerry running neck-and-neck with President Bush heading into the Nov. 2 election, Washington is consumed with speculation about an "October surprise" that would tip the scales toward the president and guarantee his re-election.
It's been 24 years since the first October surprise helped elect Republican Ronald Reagan over Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Ironically, the Republicans' October surprise was a pre-emptive strike against the Carter administration's attempt to bring home 52 Americans held hostage by Iran before the 1980 election.
By cutting its own deal with Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, the incoming administration prevented the release of hostages before the election. At his inauguration in 1981, Reagan was able to announce that the hostages had been freed. Five years later, in his second term, Reagan admitted "mistakes were made" in executing U.S. policy involving arms sales to Iran, but he was never held personally accountable for what became the Iran-contra scandal.
This year, Bush finds himself in Carter's shoes, needing an October surprise to reverse the trend that has seen him gradually lose ground to Kerry. The Web site www.octobersurprise.net ponders the question, "What tricks will Bush pull to win the election in November? Well, he'll probably try something around or before October. Welcome to October Surprise!"
The Web site invites visitors to answer a questionnaire predicting what will happen before the election to skew the outcome in Bush's favor. Thirty-six percent of the 10,895 who answered the survey (at last count) predicted, "Osama bin Laden captured."
Other choices included, Spectacular terrorist attack on U.S. soil (19 percent); Vote is threatened by terrorist attacks; vote suspended due to red alert (16 percent); Diebold Election Sys tems (touch- screen voting) fixes the vote in battleground states (11 percent); Escalation in Israel, Iran or North Korea causes U.S. to open a new war front (8 percent); Weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq (5.8 percent), and U.S. pulls out of Iraq in October, leaving the U.N. in charge (4 percent).
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice spices her speeches and testimony with warnings of a "pre-election plot" and "pre-election threats." As far back as May, Attorney General John Ashcroft cited "credible intelligence from multiple sources that al-Qaida plans an attack on the United States" before the November election.
Military analyst William S. Lind, writing for www.anti-war.com, says Iran could "provide the distraction George Bush desperately needs if the debacle in Iraq is not to lead to his defeat."
"There is little doubt that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Along with everyone else in the world, Iran knows that the best way to be safe from an American attack is to have nukes," Lind writes.
"The problem is that, while an Iranian nuclear capability may be directed at deterring the United States, it also poses a mortal threat to Israel. Israel is not known for sitting quietly while such threats develop. It is a safe bet that Israel is planning a strike on known Iranian nuclear facilities, and that such a strike will take place. The question is when."
Lind concludes his essay by saying, "This October could be full of surprises."
Some analysts have accused the Bush administration of raising the terror alert to change the subject when the president's standing with the public starts slipping. In the latest example, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, by announcing an escalation of the terror threat level from elevated (yellow) to high risk (orange), drew attention away from the opening campaign foray of challengers John Kerry and John Edwards.
Howard Dean, a former rival of Kerry's for the nomination, told Wolf Blitzer on CNN that Bush's "whole campaign is a based on the notion that 'I can keep you safe, therefore at times of difficulty for America stick with me,' then out comes Tom Ridge." Dean the former Vermont governor added, "It's just impossible to know how much of this is real and how much is politics, and I suspect there's some of both in it."
By revealing details of potential al-Qaida attack scenarios, such as bomb-laden tourist helicopters targeting New York City, speed boats and scuba divers in New York harbor and limos packed with explosives, the administration may unnecessarily have exposed a double-agent for the Pakistani government.
Geraldine Sealey, writing for www.salon.com, quotes Tim Ripley, a security expert, as saying, "You just have to wonder what in the world they were thinking. The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or worse. It goes against all the rules of counter-espionage, counter-terrorism. It's not exactly cloak-and-dagger undercover work if it's on the front pages every time there's a development, is it?"
But for this administration, some things - an approaching election, for one - seem to outweigh the need to keep undercover operations secret.
In the end, the biggest October surprise would be if there were no October surprise.
Brazaitis, formerly a Plain Dealer senior editor, is a Washington columnist.