Still Time for an October Surprise

Although Obama leads in the polls, the race could still change direction.

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President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, right, campaign in swing states in August 2012.

President Obama seems to be solidifying his lead in key battleground states. But that doesn't mean that the presidential election has been decided or that Republican challenger Mitt Romney can't win. There are several potential game changers on the horizon that could make all the difference.

The presidential debates could shift the dynamic. The first of three encounters between Obama and Romney is scheduled for October 3 in Denver on domestic policy and the prime-time viewing audience probably will be huge, raising the stakes. Romney will be trying to demonstrate stature, depth, and empathy, while Obama will try to defend his record on the economy and unemployment.

Each candidate also will attempt to avoid harmful gaffes, realizing that there are several famous examples of how debate mistakes made a difference. One was Republican President Gerald Ford's error, made in his 1976 debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, in ham-handedly questioning the dominance of the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe. Carter went on to win the White House.

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Another objective is to deliver a memorable line or phrase that helps crystallize the race. This happened in 1980 when Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, in his debate with Carter, asked voters if they were better off than they were four years earlier. Their answer was no, and Reagan won.

Tension between Israel and Iran could lead to war. Israeli officials have been threatening a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites, which Israeli officials say are designed to build a nuclear weapon that would jeopardize Israel's existence. If the situation worsens, Obama and Romney will have to react, and this could swing the election depending on how Americans evaluate their responses.

More broadly in the Middle East, anti-American sentiment is still a fact of life. This is highlighting foreign policy and national security issues in a presidential race that was supposed to be all about the economy. The reactions from Obama and Romney will go a long way toward defining them as candidates and leaders in high-pressure situations.

Changes in the economy could have major consequences. Any sudden uptick or downshift would make a difference, such as a rise or fall in the unemployment rate, now hovering around 8 percent. If the stock market tumbles or spikes upward, this would also have a big impact. Positive news helps Obama, who is in charge of the economy, while negative news helps Romney, who says he would be a superior economic steward. If Romney comes up with a more detailed and compelling plan to heal the economy, this might push him into the lead.

[Read more on the economy.]

Television ads percolate. Commercials for and against the candidates are blanketing about a dozen battleground states, including Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Ohio. These ads could propel an issue or a theme to prominence and make enough difference to throw a key state to Obama or Romney. This could mean victory in the Electoral College.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com, or on Facebook and Twitter.