WASHINGTON - In the presidential campaign's closing weeks, Democrats are bracing for an "October surprise," an event so dramatic it could influence the election's outcome. The capture of Osama bin Laden, for instance.
It's part of American political lore: the party out of power worries about a last-minute surprise engineered by the party in power.
Now that October has arrived and the election is just a month away, speculation is rife among Democrats that President Bush and political mastermind Karl Rove have some tricks up their sleeves.
With the war in Iraq going badly and people concerned about terrorism, there also seems to be a better than usual chance for a significant event beyond either party's control.
Both sides know the possibilities: a major setback in Iraq or Afghanistan, a terrorist strike against the United States, a nuclear test by North Korea, an economic shock.
Three years after Mr. Bush said he wanted Mr. bin Laden "dead or alive," the capture of the fugitive al-Qaida leader tops nearly everyone's list as a supreme example of the kind of October surprise that could help seal Mr. Bush's re-election.
Democrat John Kerry made the failure to track down Mr. bin Laden a central part of his criticism of Mr. Bush in Thursday's first presidential debate. The Massachusetts senator said Mr. Bush lost sight of that goal when he ordered the invasion of Iraq.
Some conspiracy buffs suggest Mr. bin Laden already has been captured and will be produced just before the Nov. 2 election.
But Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said the administration risks a backlash.
"Producing a high-level al-Qaida leader would immediately invite suspicion about whether this person has been cooling his heels in a safe house some place," Mr. Baker said.