It has long been a tradition in American presidential races for there to be an "October surprise" — a sometimes game-changing development that impacts the election in the waning days of the campaign.
In the 1972 contest between Republican incumbent Richard Nixon
and Democratic challenger George McGovern, for example, Nixon's secretary of state Henry Kissinger announced that "peace was at hand" in Vietnam. It wasn't, of course, but even if it had been, it's unlikely McGovern would have done much better than he did in the general election.
In 1992, when George H.W. Bush was trying to hold off challenger Bill Clinton, four days before the election, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh announced that Bush's defense secretary Caspar Weinberger was being indicted in the investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal. Republicans accused Walsh of timing the indictment to influence voters against Bush. Did it work? Hard to say. But it certainly didn't hurt Clinton's chances.
One of the oddest October surprises occurred in the George W. Bush-Al Gore contest of 2000 (at least, it was odd considering the source). Less than a week before Election Day, Fox News reporter Carl Cameron uncovered and reported on Bush's decades-old drunk-driving arrest in Maine. Bush won, anyway, and promptly began crafting the eight years of non-peace and non-prosperity we Americans are enjoying today.
There are other examples, of course, including the last-minute video plea from Osama bin Laden in 2004 to vote for John Kerry. (With friends like that, Kerry didn't need enemies.)
As October 2008 approaches its mid-point, we can only imagine what lies in store in the next three weeks. The McCain-Palin ticket languishes in the polls, both nationally and in several critical swing states. The GOP ticket has already announced — and followed through on that announcement — that it was going to "go negative." This, despite McCain's pledge not to do so.
In recent days, McCain has called Obama a liar and "dishonorable" and asked rhetorically, "Who is Barack Obama," hinting at dark secrets in his opponent's past. Palin accuses Obama in her stump speeches of "palling around with terrorists." These attacks are beneath contempt and are the hallmarks of a campaign that is out of ideas. The Obama team has responded with tough personal attacks of its own on McCain and Palin, though the name-calling hasn't been as reckless.
As the country struggles with a confidence-shaking economic meltdown, unfinished and bloody business in Iraq and Afghanistan, and soaring energy costs, we can only hope that the candidates will move past this ugliness and get back to the real issues soon.
Now that would be a real October surprise.