Watch Out for an October Surprise

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Two surprises marked last week's second U.S. presidential debate, which spent half its 90 minutes on foreign policy. The first was that Texas Governor George W. Bush, who has made only three overseas trips in his life and has displayed little expertise in foreign affairs, was both at ease and showed considerable confidence discussing the Balkans, Middle East, Somalia, Haiti and Russia. The second, only hours after the debate, was the attack in Yemen on the U.S.S. Cole which may make the first surprise moot.

The deadly bombing may prove an unintended October Surprise, an unexpected event on which a close presidential contest in its final weeks can suddenly turn. If the attack triggers a Mideast war, a sustained slump in global markets or even less catastrophic events such as a strong U.S. military response or more Israeli and Palestinian fighting the consequences will be far-reaching and the political terrain perhaps seismically shifted. At home, that could hurt Bush who, intensive polling has shown, had closed the gap on his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, and turned their race into a statistical dead heat.

Such, of course, is the nature of global events. They are almost always unpredictable. And the essence of presidential leadership is to deal capably, not with the mundane, but with the unexpected and the potentially destabilizing. That's why, over the past 20 years, debates have become a staple of U.S. presidential campaigning. In a political world of multimillion dollar ad campaigns and of focus groups which determine each adjective a politician uses in a speech, debates are the sole face-to-face, unscripted forums where candidates must think on their feet and, on live television, react to the unexpected. In 1988 Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was asked what he'd do if his wife were raped. His bland reply effectively destroyed his chance to win.

Not much was expected of Bush in the three debates which conclude Oct. 17. He stumbles through syntax and over the names of foreign leaders. His knowledge of major issues had seemed woefully inadequate. Forgotten was his debate triumph over Ann Richards, his popular predecessor whom he ousted from Texas' Governor's mansion. Gore, who in this year's primary debates chewed up Democratic rival Bill Bradley, and in a 1994 debate on trade crushed third party candidate Ross Perot, would, pundits agreed, trounce the inexperienced Bush.

That's not what happened. Bush survived the first debate on Oct. 3, staying on message while an officious Gore offered a haughty welter of details only a professor of government could love. Polls soon showed that Bush had stemmed his six-week slump that began with the August Democratic convention and had pulled within statistical margin of error range. The Oct. 11 debate was less adversarial. Bush sounded sincere and was disarming, laughing that, "I've been known to mangle a syll-obble or two." Gore, who on TV looked like an orange popsicle the first time out, fixed his makeup, but was so wary of being characterized as a bully or making the small errors that marked the initial encounter that he seemed alternately tentative or to have been ingesting tranquilizers. Notwithstanding nearly eight years of White House experience, the Vice President neither exuded confidence nor inspired it.

Their most notable difference in foreign affairs involves when and how to intervene overseas, financially as well as militarily. Bush was critical of lending money to corrupt regimes, including Russia where, he claimed, funds ended up improperly in the pocket of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a longtime negotiating partner of Gore's on Russian reform. But he also praised the Administration for handling tough issues, including Yugoslavia, saying Slobodan Milosevic would not have fallen had the U.S. not used force.

Bush is far more reluctant than Gore to commit U.S. troops overseas, especially to "nation-building" missions, as in Somalia and Haiti. Calling for a more "humble" U.S., he said, "I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, 'This is the way it's got to be.'" Gore, who cited the Marshall Plan as effective nation building, countered that, "Just because we can't intervene everywhere doesn't mean we shouldn't intervene anywhere." Both are right.

The stakes will be higher in this week's final debate. Gore must improve and show he is likable, trustworthy and that his experience matters. Bush must project competence and demonstrate he is not out of his depth. That will be more difficult for the Texan if the U.S. is retaliating for the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole or embroiled more deeply in Mideast turmoil. When a nation is attacked, voters stick with capable incumbents. A surprise in October is enough; they don't want another in November.