With the president edging further ahead in many polls, some Bush backers are already starting to speculate on key cabinet nominations during a second term. The polls may give them comfort, but the calendar should give them pause: In a close election with little margin for error, the dreaded "October surprise" could shift the political winds overnight.
"There are a number of threats on the horizon," says Tom Knecht, a political scientist at the University of Denver, "and any of them could be decisive in a close race."
Mr. Bush knows only too well the dangers posed by a last-minute bombshell. Four years ago his campaign was blindsided just days before the election by reports of an old arrest for drunk driving. Mr. Bush admitted to the incident and said he had kept it secret because he didn't want his teenage daughters to imitate his youthful indiscretions. While accepting full blame for his 1976 DUI, he noted that the disclosure was awfully convenient for the Democrats, coming to light "somehow four or five days before an election."
Slightly ahead in the polls at the time of the DUI announcement, the Bush campaign never got fully back on-message, and the 2000 election went down as one of the closest in history. On Election Day, evangelicals turned out in smaller-than-expected numbers-a result some analysts linked to Christians' disappointment over Mr. Bush's hard-drinking past.
This year, veteran CBS anchorman Dan Rather's scathing report on Mr. Bush's record in the National Guard had the makings of an early October surprise, but to the surprise of almost everyone, that story may end up hurting John Kerry rather than the president.
Twelve days after the original 60 Minutes II broadcast, Mr. Rather and the CBS brass issued a formal apology on Sept. 20, saying they'd been duped by Bill Burkett, a former National Guardsman who blamed the president for cutting his benefits. Mr. Burkett supplied a 60 Minutes II producer with forged memos-obtained, he said, in a shadowy exchange at a livestock show-which the network then used despite the reservations of some of its own document experts.
Mr. Rather's belated apology shifted the spotlight to the Kerry campaign, which acknowledged at least two high-level contacts with Mr. Burkett prior to the 60 Minutes II broadcast. USA Today reported that CBS arranged a phone call between Mr. Burkett and top Kerry aide Joe Lockhart as part of a deal to obtain the memos. Mr. Lockhart denied any involvement with the memos, as did former Sen. Max Cleland, another Kerry adviser who spoke to Mr. Burkett.
"I called the guy," Mr. Lockhart admitted to The Wall Street Journal. "We talked for three or four minutes about the swift-boat controversy. He believed our response was inadequate, that Kerry should push back about the Vietnam experience. I thanked him for his advice. End of the story."
But it wasn't quite the end. Mike McCurry, another Kerry adviser, later said Mr. Lockhart told campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill about the conversation, and she, in turn, relayed it to the candidate himself. That trail to the top provided fresh ammunition to the Bush campaign. "The fact that CBS News would coordinate with the most senior people in the Kerry campaign is troubling, and it is a stunning revelation that raises serious questions," said Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush campaign. "The Kerry campaign should come clean about their involvement."
Any proof of a coordinated effort to smear the president could turn the memo scandal into a Democratic version of Watergate, potentially dooming Mr. Kerry. For the most part, however, it's the incumbent who has to worry about a last-minute stumble or unpleasant surprise. Though Mr. Rather's memos backfired against the Democrats, there could be more unpleasantness yet to come for the president. Responding to a lawsuit by the Associated Press, a federal judge ordered the Pentagon to release all known Bush military records by Sept. 24, and, by Sept. 29, to release a written statement detailing its search for any further records.
Ahead in the polls, Mr. Bush also has the most to lose in the upcoming presidential debates. After weeks of foot-dragging, the White House on Sept. 20 agreed to a series of three match-ups slated for Sept. 30, Oct. 8, and Oct. 13. The president knows he can ill afford any major gaffes or personality tics: Al Gore's poorly received performance in the first two debates erased his slight lead in the polls at roughly the same point in the 2000 campaign.
"It's always the one who is ahead who has the most to lose," says John Bibby, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. "In many ways debates are not advantageous for an incumbent president [because] they elevate a challenger to the same level as the incumbent. Some of the advantages of being president are lost in that context."
For a Republican president, a hostile press can amplify the danger of a bad debate. "The history of these things has been that the supporters of each candidate think their man won," Mr. Bibby says. "If there's a negative assessment, it usually comes several days later after the news media has had a chance to digest the debate and comment on it." For the White House, the specter of Dan Rather picking a debate winner can hardly be a comforting thought.
Finally, there's the most frightening unknown of all: terrorism. Mr. Bush leads in the polls largely because Americans trust him, more than Mr. Kerry, to keep them safe from terrorists. A last-minute terrorist attack could radically alter that perception, throwing the entire election into doubt.
Recent bombings in Spain and Indonesia prove that al-Qaeda views national elections as a tempting target. To be effective, though, experts say terrorists would have to strike the American mainland, and not just American targets abroad-particularly in Iraq. "After a while the public has become somewhat numb to what's been going on in Iraq," Mr. Knecht says. "It would have to be something fairly dramatic to alter the public's opinion of what's going on there. One more bombing, one more beheading wouldn't do it. It would have to be something of a different magnitude."
And what about an attack on American soil? Campaign-watchers agree the impact would be impossible to predict. "If you had a major terrorist attack, it really could go two ways," Mr. Knecht says. "You might see people rally around the flag and around President Bush. Or it might be perceived as another failure of the Bush administration, leading voters to conclude that it's time for a change. There's just no way to say."