Unsettled Season Leaves Presidential Race in Air

With the race so tight, the presidential election could turn on events beyond the control of either candidate: a terrorist attack on American soil, a setback in Iraq (search), a further surge in oil prices or other economic calamity.

President Bush (search) has the clear advantage of incumbency — as he showed last week with attention-grabbing anti-terrorism initiatives. Yet being in charge can become a liability when things go badly.

Incumbency could not keep Presidents Ford, Carter and the elder Bush in the Oval Office, in part because of events over which they had little control or appreciation at the time.

"As a political strategist, I'd always rather have the incumbency, but it does bring baggage with it," said Democratic consultant and former Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart. "People have to want to rehire the president, to think that the country's going in the right direction."

Consultants in both parties say they rarely have seen a race in which events are so unsettled and where so many unknowns lurk.

For instance, an attack close to the November election could help to unite the nation behind Bush. A serious setback in Iraq could work against him and to the political advantage of Democrat John Kerry (search).

Recent news on the economic front has proved more discouraging than the Republicans had hoped. Oil prices are reaching record highs. The pace of job growth has slowed for four months in a row, and a report Friday showed that employers added just 32,000 workers to payrolls in July.

Bush has considerable leeway as president to write his own election-influencing headlines. He could do it by:

— driving down gasoline prices by tapping into the government's emergency reserves. Bush has resisted doing so, but it remains an option. Bush strongly criticized the Clinton administration's decision during the 2000 presidential campaign to free up 30 million barrels to check soaring prices.

— finding Usama bin Laden (search). The capture or death of the Al Qaeda (search) leader and suspected Sept. 11 mastermind could be guaranteed to give Bush a big boost.

— replacing Dick Cheney as his running mate if the vice president becomes too much of a liability. Cheney is popular with conservatives, but his poll figures are in the basement. Many Americans see him as the embodiment of the administration's flaws, including exaggerated assessments of Iraq's weapons capabilities and cozy ties with the oil industry.

Challengers always fear an election-influencing "October surprise." Incumbents almost always look for ways to pull one out of the hat, though seldom with much success.

Ford could not overcome a poor economy and voter resentment over his pardon of Richard Nixon for Watergate-related offenses.

Carter was stymied by his inability to free U.S. hostages in Iran.

Bush's father failed to accurately gauge the toll on ordinary Americans of an economic slowdown that, by the numbers, looked mild.

The younger Bush has worked hard to appear engaged — on the economy and on the terrorism fight — and thus avoid his father's mistakes.

The White House has grabbed attention with recent anti-terrorism moves: elevated alerts for possible financial targets, Bush's endorsement of a new director of national intelligence (search), FBI arrests in purported terrorism-related cases. All those developments threw the Kerry campaign off stride last week in the opening days of its cross-country campaign tour.

Democrats charged that the alerts were based on weak, outdated evidence, and that Bush was three years late in calling for an intelligence director with broad authority. But the sense of movement enabled Bush to reclaim control of the national agenda in the week following the Democratic convention.

"The president and the Oval Office have the chance to set the terms of the debate every day. Kerry can be bumped out of the news almost every day. That's always a challenge in running against an incumbent president," said GOP consultant Scott Reed, who managed Republican Bob Dole's losing effort in 1996 against President Clinton.

"The downside for the incumbent president is the big unknown in Iraq, and it will continue to be right up to Election Day," Reed said.