Can McCain Pull Off October Surprise?

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

ByABC News
October 6, 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.