Terror, Iraq Could Jolt Bush-Kerry Race

The economy was in "malaise," 52 Americans had been held hostage in Iran for nearly a year, and pundits on the eve of the 1980 election wondered if Jimmy Carter could pull off an "October surprise" -- gaining the hostages' freedom in the nick of time to save his presidency.

He couldn't. He floundered. In November, he lost.

Now, in 2004, a Bush-Kerry battle for the presidency is under way. The economy again is uncertain. Iraq is on edge. Osama bin Laden is on the run. And the war on terror continues.

Elections experts say any one of them could play the role Iran had in 1980, and be this year's X factor -- potentially spawning bombshell events that could jolt the election status quo, and maybe even bringing a decisive October surprise.

It is all part of presidential politics -- perhaps even more so now, in the first contest after 9/11.

"By definition, the unforeseen, the unpredictable makes the outcome of an election hard to know, especially when we are eight or nine months from Election Day," says David Greenberg, a Yale University assistant professor of history and political science and author of the recent book, Nixon's Shadow. "The things that tend to happen are the things that are hard to think about in advance."

Political scientists agree some of this year's potential land mines already are in view. But they don't always agree who is most likely to surge -- President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. -- if terrorists attack, if bin Laden is caught, or if Iraq or North Korea suddenly unravels.

Some families who lost relatives in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks voiced outrage Thursday at President Bush's first ads of his re-election campaign that use images of the devastated World Trade Center to portray him as the right leader for tumultuous times.

On ABCNEWS' Good Morning America, Bush adviser Karen Hughes defended the four commercials -- which are being run in at least 16 important battleground states -- as "tastefully done."

"Sept. 11 is not some distant event in the past," Hughes said. "All of us feel deeply that tragedy but it's also important to recognize the impact it had on our national public policy."

Rally Round the Flag

Conventional wisdom says a foreign crisis plays into the hands of a sitting president. In emergencies, people look to their leaders for reassurance, and presidents get to react in a presidential fashion.

Nelson W. Polsby, co-author of Presidential Elections: Strategies and Structures of American Politics, now in its 11th edition, and a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says it's happened so many times, analysts even have given the phenomenon a special name. And President Bush's fluctuating approval rating could be exhibit A.

"Bush's popularity has mostly been a phenomenon public opinion experts call 'rally round the flag,' " Polsby says. "9/11 got George Bush about 40 [approval rating percentage] points. The invasion of Iraq got him about 15 points, and the finding of Saddam Hussein got him about seven or eight points.

"After the rally round the flag, it's subject to decay at varying rates," Polsby adds. "So my conclusion to that is fairly straightforward -- that if there is another event of that type, you have to assume it will benefit President Bush."

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