The first killings on the evening of Oct. 2 didn't immediately register with reporters or even law-enforcement officials. After all, the Washington, D.C., metro area can be a pretty violent place. But by rush hour the morning of Oct. 3, a full-scale panic had set in. Five deaths within a few hours, all with the same M.O.: a single bullet from a high-powered rifle.
More shootings quickly followed in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. The victims had nothing in common. They were shopping, waiting for the bus, filling their cars with gas, mowing the lawn. A 13-year-old boy was shot on his way to school. Nearby, police found a Tarot card with the chilling message: "Dear policemen, I am God."
For two weeks the unpredictable shootings continued, and residents of the nation's capital felt under siege. Schools shut down; shoppers crouched and ran through grocery store parking lots. Gas stations put up tarps to hide their customers from view. Finally, an alert trucker noticed a suspicious car at a Maryland rest stop and called the police. John Allen Muhammad, a member of the Nation of Islam, and Lee Malvo, a 17-year-old Jamaican immigrant, were arrested and charged with nearly a dozen counts of murder.
The dreaded "October Surprise" normally comes from a beleaguered president desperate for reelection. But this year, the surprise came in New Jersey, from beleaguered Democrats desperate to hold their one-vote majority in the U.S. Senate.
On Oct. 1, state Democrats announced that Frank Lautenberg, a 78-year-old former senator, would replace incumbent Sen. Robert Torricelli on the November ballot. Just days earlier, the feisty senator known as "The Torch" had announced he was withdrawing from the race in the wake of an ethical scandal.
Republicans immediately moved to block the last-minute switch in the courts. State law stipulates that no candidate substitutions may occur within 50 days of an election, but the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court waived that deadline to allow Mr. Lautenberg's candidacy. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an emergency appeal, Republicans reluctantly scratched one likely pickup off their wish list.
Dishonoring the dead
An October that began with a Senate surprise in New Jersey ended with yet another one in Minnesota--this one a true tragedy. Sen. Paul Wellstone, locked in a tight race for reelection, died on Oct. 25 when his small plane crashed in the northern part of the state. His wife, daughter, three staffers, and two pilots were also killed.
Never overwhelmingly popular with Minnesota voters, Mr. Wellstone did win posthumous admiration for the consistency of his liberal philosophy. Republicans initially feared an outpouring of sympathy might sweep his replacement, former Vice President Walter Mondale, into office, much as Missouri's Jean Carnahan had won election two years earlier after her husband died in a similar crash. But Democrats overplayed their hand, turning a somber memorial service into a foot-stomping political rally that alienated many independent voters. The race remained close, but on election night the former VP was sent back into retirement.