In a tight race, a late bombshell explodes every fragile calculation

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The Independent US

Once upon a time US presidential candidates dreaded an "October surprise". These days, when attention spans and media cycles are even shorter, the bombshell explodes in November. So it is that four days before the election, an ancient charge of drink-driving against George W Bush throws every fragile calculation into the air.

Once upon a time US presidential candidates dreaded an "October surprise". These days, when attention spans and media cycles are even shorter, the bombshell explodes in November. So it is that four days before the election, an ancient charge of drink-driving against George W Bush throws every fragile calculation into the air.

In hindsight we should have expected it. Vacuums demand to be filled and for the past few weeks every reporter in the land has been struggling to find something new to say about a campaign where every issue has been picked to pieces, thrillingly unpredictable by the numbers but, in content, dull as ditchwater.

Back in 1980 there was the "October surprise" that never happened, the expectation that the Republicans would scupper Jimmy Carter with a surprise deal to free the Iranian hostages. In late October 1992, an independent counsel issued a report on the Iran-Contra report that George Bush Senior swears to this day cost him that election.

Then four years ago, revelations that Bill Clinton seemed to have enlisted half of Asia's businessmen as contributors to the Democratic coffers ate into his margin of victory. Never, though, has sensation disrupted a race as tight as this one. Until Thursday, the wheels of the two campaigns were spinning in the sand. True, Ross Perot endorsed Mr Bush - but that could be curse rather than blessing. The rival camps spent tens of millions of dollars on increasingly nasty attack ads, delivered in those treacly smug voices unique to American political TV spots: can you trust slippery Gore? Is brainless Bush up to the job?

But the dynamic of the race did not change. Monday to Friday, the polls hardly flickered, every one showing a Bush lead of between 2 and 5 per cent.

Apart from a brief foray by both candidates to the West Coast, the last full week of campaigning turned into a red-eye shuttle around a well-worn circuit of vote-rich "battleground" states - Missouri, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, then Missouri again.

Mr Bush was dispensing bonhomie at one end of the state on Thursday, Mr Gore was here in Kansas City yesterday, chasing the 11 electoral votes that could make the difference between the White House and the end of his political career. The rallies have become more frenzied, as they had to be for candidates kept going only by adrenalin generated by mass adulation and the hugeness of the prize at stake.

In the past few days, the worthy but plodding Gore stump speeches have belatedly acquired passion, as the reality slowly struck home: he could actually lose to this Texan nincompoop. "I want your vote, I want your help," he bellowed to an audience in Chicago, with desperation in his voice. In public he pointed to the economic achievements of the Clinton/Gore years, in private he raised questions over his opponent's ability to govern.

Mr Bush, though, sought to float above the fray, wrapping himself in God, flag and the slogan "Bringing America Together", and promising a new listening style of Government would end partisanship in Washington. Some hope of that. But until Thursday, the strategy of running down the clock seemed to be working.

Then that evening, news of the 1976 drunk driving offence dropped into this stagnating pool. Whether it is a mighty boulder or a tiny pebble only election day will tell. But by week's end, the ripples were being felt everywhere.

The talk radio shows, for instance - those bigoted but ever-entertaining bastions of conservatism - have changed their tune. On Thursday a caller to K-mox, "the voice of St Louis", was speculating on the future of a defeated Vice-President. Mr Gore, he suggested, might seek work as a salesman in an up-market shoe store. "He wears suits very well, he sounds as if he knows a lot, and will tell you anything."

But by yesterday they were in defensive mode. "This is dirty tricks time, the Gore campaign trying to fiddle the election," thundered Neal Boortz, Atlanta radio's self-proclaimed "mouth of the south". A caller, Mike, a police officer, sympathised. "Yeah, this is stupid. I can understand Bush not telling his kids. But did he lie? No, he did not."

In Michigan, Mr Bush addressed the controversy at the end of a speech otherwise honed to the clichés every reporter covering him knows by heart. Mr Gore, however, pointedly did not - and not surprisingly, when it appears, just as Mr Boortz suggested, a Democrat activist had leaked the news.

Instead he focused on the economy and invoked the nearby shade of Harry "Give 'em Hell" Truman, the man from a Kansas City suburb called Independence, whose 1948 upset win over Thomas Dewey has made him the patron saint of every underdog Democrat since.

"This is a fork-in-the-road election. Do you want to go back to the past?" the Vice-President asked an audience at a college in downtown Kansas City. "Were we really better off eight years ago? You know what Harry said, 'tell 'em the truth and they'll think it's hell'. The Bush policies will put at risk all the prosperity we have."

So there matters stand. As far as we know, the contest is still too close to call. Perhaps, as in 1980, there will be a last minute stampede to the challenger, carrying Mr Bush to the White House; perhaps the 1968 and 1976 pattern will be repeated when the tide flowed back towards the incumbent party, though not sufficiently to give it victory.

For what it's worth, a traditional "national student poll" - unscientific but which has rarely got a presidential result wrong - yesterday was running 55-38 for Mr Bush. But the frantic shuttle for the votes that matter will continue, ever more intense. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, Florida ... and so on ad infinitum - or rather, till Tuesday. The key question now is, will the voters care?

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