Can McCain Pull Off October Surprise?

With 27 days to go, anything can happen, even at tonight's debate.

October 06, 2008, 6:46 PM

Oct. 7, 2008— -- The polls are turning, the electoral map is shrinking and perhaps most troubling of all for Sen. John McCain, the clock is ticking.

With just 27 days remaining in the presidential campaign, the Arizona Republican will meet Sen. Barack Obama tonight in Nashville, Tenn., for the second of three debates. Down in the polls in the key battleground states, McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, went on the offensive this weekend, aggressively attacking Obama for his association to 1960s radical William Ayers, a move some see as part of a last-ditch attempt to revive a flagging campaign.

The polls, pundits and press have, in the past, painted a similarly gloomy picture for McCain. In the first weeks of the Republican primary, he was written off for dead -- unable to even afford to fly between campaign stops -- only to come back to win the nomination.

Beyond McCain's own record of scrappy comebacks, he and his supporters might also find solace in the calendar. For it is October, month of fallen leaves, Halloween and political surprises.

McCain's campaign is backed up against a wall. An ABC News analysis of the battleground states found that Obama is ahead in all the states that John Kerry won four years ago along with two states, Iowa and New Mexico, that George Bush captured in the last election. Those states would give Obama 264 electoral votes, just short of the 270 needed for victory.

There are eight states still up for grabs, according to polls. Obama is ahead or tied in four of those states, including big ones like Ohio and Florida. If the current pattern holds, Obama would have to win just one of those states to seal a November victory.

"Right now this is not a particularly close race," veteran Democratic strategist James Carville told "Good Morning America" today.

"For him [McCain] to get back in, he has to ... attack Obama's judgment," Carville said.

McCain is trying to do just that, launching a new attack ad today that calls Obama a liar. The McCain ad claims Obama was wrong or misleading on a series of issues including Social Security, health care and stem cells. The ad ends with the line, "Barack Obama. He promised better. He lied."

McCain still has time. Analysts and historians say, anything can happen -- even in a setting as formal and seemingly formulaic as tonight's debate.

"He's got a very difficult task ahead of him," said Tori Clarke, a Republican strategist and ABC News political consultant. "He has to do something different. He has to say something that will change the game. He has to inject something into the system that will shake things up, because right now, it does not look good."

But sometimes a candidate has nothing to do with creating the news that makes for an October surprise; sometimes it is the news that makes the October surprise for a candidate.

"It is going to be difficult for McCain to pull something out of his hat that really shocks the electorate," said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, a former director of the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan and Ford libraries. "The problem with creating an October surprise is that the fundamentals this year are so fundamental. Eighty percent of the country was convinced we are on the wrong track and that was before the virtual collapse of Wall Street," he said.

"There is a real sense that the future is not only unpredictable, but frightening. No one wants to think it or say it, but the kind of surprise McCain would need would have to be something terrible, something which played to McCain's perceived strengths and Obama's perceived weaknesses, something like a terrorist attack," said Smith.

The mere threat of terrorism created an October surprise in 2004, which observers say helped George W. Bush squeak past Sen. John Kerry in the final days of the campaign. Three years after 9/11, terrorism remained the number one issue in voters' minds that year, and when Osama bin Laden released an audio tape the last week in October in which he said, "any state that does not mess with our security, has naturally guaranteed its own security."

On Oct. 31, 2004, the polls put Bush and Kerry, D-Mass., in a dead heat. A week later, Bush won the election by 2.5 percent of the popular vote and netted eight more electoral votes than he won in 2000.

In 2000, Bush had to contend with his own October surprise, which did not actually occur until Nov. 2.

Five days before the 2000 election Bush admitted to a 1976 arrest for drunk driving near his family's summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

"The 2000 announcement didn't cost Bush the election, but it certainly cost him the margin. It could not have gotten any closer than it did," said Smith.

Debates are rarely the stage for a surprise revelation, Smith said, but sometimes, a particularly good performance can help swing the electorate. That happened, he said, in 1980.

The economy was the biggest issue of the 1980 election between Democrat incumbent Jimmy Carter and Republican nominee Ronald Reagan. Election Day that year came almost exactly a year to the day that 52 American diplomats were taken hostage at the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, by a group of Islamic extremists.

"The October surprise in 1980 was the debate," said Smith. "When you look at the economic problems today and the threat of terrorism, there is a close parallel with that election. The economic problems plus the hostage crisis merged and radicalized the electorate to something it wouldn't otherwise do -– elect an elderly, right-wing, former actor."

"Regan nailed it in those debates. Like this year, there was a sense that people were clearly dissatisfied by the status quo, but they were not yet convinced that Reagan was the answer. They needed to be convinced, and he did it in the debate. Reagan and Carter went from being essentially tied to Reagan winning by 10 points."

Perhaps the most iconic October surprise came neither in October, nor as a surprise. In the 1988 election between then-Republican Vice President George H. W. Bush and Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis, Bush ran an ad depicting Willy Horton, a convicted felon sentenced to life, who committed rape and robbery while on a state-implemented weekend furlough in Massachusetts.

Though the connection between Dukakis and Horton was made in the primaries, Bush did not effectively use the information until his campaign put out a television ad called "Weekend Passes" on Sept. 21, 1988, that used Horton's image.

"There is something reminiscent in making that connection to an undesirable," said Clarke about the McCain strategy to connect Obama with Ayers.

"I'm betting [McCain] will try to do more of that. He'll keep raising issues and doubts about Obama's character and associates, including at the debate," she said.

"If it were anybody else but John McCain, I'd say this election is over. But time and again, he has proved his critics wrong. If anyone can pull this off, it is him."

And that might be the biggest surprise of all.

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