NEW YORK - With the presidential election less than six weeks away, and Mitt Romney trailing President Barack Obama in the swing states needed to secure 270 electoral votes, the Republican nominee's best hope is an "October surprise." The term, which describes an event with the potential to determine the outcome of an election, was popularized during the 1980 presidential race. Ronald Reagan's campaign was worried President Jimmy Carter would orchestrate a last-minute release of the 52 U.S. hostages held in Iran and win re-election. The conspiracy theorists turned things upside down, accusing Reagan of secretly negotiating with Iran to delay the hostages' release until after the election.
According to language guru William Safire, William J. Casey coined the term in 1968, when Richard Nixon was running for president. Casey, who went on to become Reagan's Central Intelligence Agency director, was a Nixon aide. Safire was a speechwriter for Nixon. Casey was afraid President Lyndon Johnson would engineer a Vietnam peace initiative and help his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, win the election.
Whatever the source, Romney could use an October surprise to boost his flailing campaign. And I'm not talking 47 percent. New York Times columnist David Brooks offered a good diagnosis of what ails Romney on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sept. 23: "He is a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he's pretending to be something he's not, some sort of cartoonish government-hater," Brooks said.
Instead, Romney should emphasize his problem-solving nature. "He's a PowerPoint guy," Brooks said, "a non- ideological person running in an extremely ideological age." Short of allowing Mitt to be Mitt, the Romney campaign needs an October surprise. Since surprises are, by definition, unknowable, we can only speculate on what a few of them might be.
The Debates: Obama has a notoriously thin skin. He bristles when challenged. He can be patronizing ("You're likeable enough, Hillary"). He's narcissistic to a fault. He gives a lot of one-on-one interviews, which he can control, and holds few press conferences, which he can't. He points fingers at everyone else. Former President George W. Bush is so bruised after almost four years of Obama, he doesn't dare be seen in public!
Without his ubiquitous teleprompter, there is always a chance, albeit a slim one, that Obama will get ruffled by something his opponent says in the three debates next month. Obama aides are already lowering expectations for their boss, claiming the slew of Republican primary debates gives Romney an advantage.
Unscripted, the you-didn't-build-that Obama is much likelier to reveal his true self. Brooks implied that the real Romney is more electable than the faux version. Would the public say the same thing about the real Obama? As the World Burns: Muslim rage in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Death and destruction at U.S. embassies. Chaos, even collapse, in the euro zone (although probably not in the next six weeks). An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Anything is possible. With the Arab world in flames and Obama's foreign policy in tatters, Romney has an opening to articulate what his administration would do in similar circumstances.
This would be a good time to tell us how he sees the role of the United States in the world, even introduce the Romney Doctrine. When U.S. foreign policy for decades has been to indulge friendly dictators until they become uncooperative - see Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gadhafi - it shouldn't be too hard to offer something better to voters.
Scandal, Cover-Up: There is always the possibility that a White House scandal and cover-up could tip the election to Romney. Of course, any such scandal would have to: engage the media's attention for longer than one day; warrant better placement than the bottom of Page 18 in the daily paper; and have significant repercussions in which senior Obama administration officials are implicated.
What about the intelligence leaks surrounding the U.S.- Israeli cyberattacks on Iran's main nuclear facilities? The Obama administration has denied leaking the information, contradicting the sourcing in David Sanger's book, "Confront and Conceal," excerpts of which were published in the New York Times.
Sanger attributes the detailed information on the Stuxnet and Flame viruses to "members of the president's national security team who were in the room," in addition to outside experts.
If U.S. intelligence agents were compromised or killed as a result of the leaks, the public would be outraged. And Obama would be hard-pressed to find a dumb video to blame it on.
Obama's reaction and response to events could provide an opportunity for Romney to show his stuff. I tend to agree with Brooks. Romney's life has been characterized by success at work and charity at home. Americans should want someone like him in the White House.
I also agree with columnist George Will, who put it best on the Sept. 9 edition of ABC's "This Week." Discussing the latest grim news on the labor market, Will said: "If the Republican Party cannot win in this environment, it has to get out of politics and find another business." He is right. We have heard ad nauseum that no president since Franklin Roosevelt has been re-elected with an unemployment rate exceeding 7.4 percent. If the lousy economy during Obama's first term hasn't made the election a slam-dunk for Romney, it's hard to see how even the most ghastly October surprise will.
Caroline Baum, author of "Just What I Said," is a Bloomberg View columnist.