The end is near

By Tim Grieve
Published October 23, 2004 5:35PM (EDT)

There are only 10 days left in a presidential race that began, well, a really, really long time ago. When this thing started, the war in Iraq looked like George Bush's strong suit, Janet Jackson's wardrobe was still fully functional, and -- as USAToday noted Friday -- Britney Spears hadn't even been married once.

Now we're at the end, or close to it. It is time for both campaigns to pull out anything they've been holding back. Here's what we'll be watching for -- when we're not watching the Red Sox -- between now and Nov. 2.

The October Surprise. We always figured that the administration would "announce" the capture of Osama bin Laden right about now, just as it unveiled the news that Pakistan had caught a high-level al Qaida official just hours before Kerry spoke at the Democratic National Convention in July. It seems a little late for that now, and if Bush really thought he had a bead on bin Laden, he wouldn't be so busy not worrying about him.

Our money is on the head of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the terrorist Bush has been discussing an awful lot lately despite having passed up several chances to take him out before the Iraq war started. But Bush seems to have a hard time catching actual terrorists; in the three years since the administration identified its 22 "most wanted" terrorists, only three have been neutralized. If Bush can't get Zarqawi, he can always try the next best thing: An unannounced but well publicized trip to visit the troops in Baghdad. The timing is all wrong for another Thanksgiving turkey, but we're sure those soldiers would offer up some camera-ready booyas in exchange for a little White House trick or treat candy.

Smears and Slurred Words. There's this weird coincidence, see? Races in which Karl Rove is involved always seem to include last-minute smear campaigns. We're not saying that Turd Blossom has anything to do with any of it. We're just remembering those rumors that Ann Richards was gay and the whispers about John McCain's illegitimate love child. We're thinking about Joshua Green's story in The Atlantic, the one about a judge in Alabama who found himself on the wrong side of a Karl Rove campaign -- and, coincidentally, we're sure -- the victim of rumors suggesting he was a pedophile.

What does Karl have planned for John Kerry? Who knows? Kerry said back in May that he was "waiting for" Rove's attacks, and his campaign advisors say they're ready for anything now. What will it be -- and when? Matt Drudge is already pushing the Teresa-as-drunk story -- a odd line of attack given the boozy troubles of the president, the vice president and the president's kin. Surely, the heirs of Lee Atwater can do better than that.

Surrogate Sex. Both parties go for star power and sex appeal next week, and we're not talking about Cher's trip to Florida for John Kerry. Bill Clinton emerges from his recuperation this weekend for an interview with Diane Sawyer -- it will air on "Good Morning America" Monday -- then takes to the stage with Kerry in Philadelphia Monday. The question: How's Bubba's health? If he's strong, he can push hard on voter turnout, especially among African-Americans in Florida, where Clinton is scheduled to appear Tuesday. If he's visibly weak, will the TV images hand Kerry a Reagan-funeral sympathy bump -- or at least prompt right-wing windbags to lay off Bubba a bit? The Republicans have their own star in Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's likely to campaign for Bush in Ohio next week and should be a drawing card for Buckeye State voters who must be bored of seeing the actual candidates themselves by now. It's unclear how enthusiastically the Gropinator will work for the president, however, and not just because he's friends with Kerry. After Schwarzenegger endorsed Bush at the Republican National Convention in August, he says his wife, Kennedy cousin Maria Shriver, withheld sex for two weeks. Memo to Karen Hughes, Nicole Devinish and those cute young Bush volunteers from Ohio State: Consider yourselves forewarned.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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