WASHINGTON - "October surprise."
The words can give campaign strategists the shivers and keep presidential candidates awake at night.
This year, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on television ads, crisscrossed the country for months, registered countless new voters and crammed for a debate series that concludes tomorrow night.
But with polls showing the presidential race very much up for grabs, events could play the most crucial role in deciding who wins.
In just the past 24 hours, the death of actor Christopher Reeve has put renewed emphasis on the emotional issue of stem cell research, which Kerry has been using to try to pull votes from Bush. In Afghanistan, the huge turnout for a largely peaceful presidential election is giving Bush welcome bragging points in foreign policy after weeks of mostly bad news from overseas.
Lurking in the background may be other events - the capture of Osama bin Laden, a fresh revelation about one of the candidates or a terrorist strike at home or abroad - that could sway voters as the campaign nears the finish.
"I've been saying like a mantra for eight months now that this election would be decided by events that haven't yet happened," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "You still get the feeling that this is certainly not an outlandish thing to say."
"October surprise" was the phrase originally given to any incumbent-engineered ploy designed to switch votes in the closing days of a presidential campaign. It has come to mean any unexpected development or event with the potential to decide an election.
Stem cell research
With just three weeks until Election Day, the unexpected death of Reeve, a champion for stem cell research, drew fresh attention to a contentious subject that could be one of the big sleeper issues of the year.
For months, Kerry has attempted to use embryonic stem cell research as a wedge issue with which to pry independent and moderate Republicans away from Bush. By some estimates, up to 100 million Americans suffer medical conditions that could be alleviated, advocates say, as a result of research using embryonic tissue.
In Friday's town hall presidential debate, Kerry answered a question about stem cells by referring to "Chris Reeve" as "a friend of mine." Throughout the campaign, Kerry has employed the issue to portray Bush as a president who cares less about potentially life-saving science than placating ideologues in his conservative Republican base.
The charge was echoed by former President Ronald Reagan's son, Ron, who promoted the cause of stem cell research in a prime-time Democratic convention speech this summer that cast the issue - and the election - as a choice between "reason and ignorance, between true compassion and mere ideology."
Bush has tried to walk a fine line, going out of his way to avoid alienating social conservatives while preserving his support among moderates. The president's 2001 decision on the issue tried to strike a careful balance.
It allowed federal funding for the first time for research using cells taken from human embryos that had been destroyed, but imposed sharp limits on the stem cell lines that could be used. Critics said the limits were too restrictive, but there was nothing in Bush's decision to prevent the use of embryonic tissue in research funded privately or by states.
"Science is important, but so is ethics, so is balancing life," Bush said in Friday's debate. "To destroy life to save life is - it's one of the real ethical dilemmas that we face."
Underscoring the potential importance of the issue, both candidates issued statements yesterday mourning Reeve's death. Bush praised "his dedicated advocacy for those with physical disabilities." Kerry called the actor "truly America's hero" and said Reeve's efforts to find a cure for spinal injuries like those he suffered in a 1995 accident would one day be realized.
Reeve's death adds emotional "poignance to the stem cell issue, which I think is a little cruise missile aimed at the Republican coalition," said Jim Pinkerton, who held key jobs in every GOP presidential campaign from 1980 to 1992. "Whether it strikes its target between now and Election Day remains to be seen."
The influence of October surprises, real or imaginary, is often difficult to measure.
Five days before the 2000 vote, Bush was forced to acknowledge that he'd been arrested years before for driving under the influence of alcohol near his parents' home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush's admission, which came only after a Fox TV affiliate in nearby Portland broke the story, is believed to have cost him a substantial number of votes from social conservatives and made a close contest even tighter.
After the election, Bush conceded that it had been a mistake not to reveal the information earlier, because the surprise disclosure could have cost him the White House.