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Judy’s Notebook: An October Surprise May Help Put the Election in Focus

President Barack Obama Greets N.J. Governor Chris Christie

President Barack Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after he arrives at Atlantic City International Airport before surveying Hurricane Sandy damage on Oct. 31, 2012.

For an example of a last-minute news development that has the potential to change the outcome of an election, we can go back to the fall of 1972, when 12 days before voters were to go to the polls, President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, declared “peace is at hand,” in negotiations to end the war in Vietnam. The announcement was credited with expanding Nixon’s already significant lead over George McGovern. Nixon coasted to re-election despite the fact that fighting would go on for another 10 months.

Since then, campaigns, especially those of the challenger, have regularly accused their opponent of manufacturing a news event late in the game, to put them in a stronger position. Sometimes these allegations have had the ring of truth; other times the accusations seemed manufactured themselves. There is almost always a dispute about how much they influence the election outcome. In late October of 2000, a Democratic politician from Maine disclosed that Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in that state 24 years earlier. Bush quickly acknowledged it was true and although he lost the popular vote to Al Gore, went on to win the presidency, with a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This year, the October surprise comes at the hand of Mother Nature: A freakishly powerful storm system that tore through the most populated section of the United States, leaving flooding, power outages and disrupted transportation and work schedules — in addition to dozens of deaths — in its wake. President Barack Obama responded by doubling down on his official duties, stressing his main priority is the safety of anyone in harm’s way. Mitt Romney’s campaign, without an official portfolio, hastily organized a “donate to storm victims” opportunity, in the battleground state of Ohio.

Romney returns to the campaign trail full-time on Wednesday in Florida, as President Obama spends part of the day touring storm damage with New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie. By the end of the week, with just a handful of days left until Election Day, both will be back in full-throated political combat. But some voters, having been given a reprieve from campaign coverage for a few days — a rare moment of agreement from the two sides on what the primary focus should be — may slightly adjust their thinking.

Just seeing the pictures of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — the flattened seaside houses, flooded streets and subways of New York and New Jersey, darkened blocks that are normally lit up at night, cars and boats tossed around, and tearful homeowners, coupled with the death toll and the rising financial cost (now at $50 billion), reminds everyone of what’s important at a time like this. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told residents of the town of Sayreville this morning, “We can argue about other stuff, but there’s no arguing about this.”

So while voters weigh the two presidential candidates, their records and what they offer for the next four years, it’s a good idea to watch them closely as they respond to the unexpected. Do they have the right priorities? Are their values in the right place? Are they connecting with people who are in need and listening to them? What are they saying about what they’re seeing and hearing? Do they seem genuine? And is there consistency between how they’re responding to this and what they’ve said and done in the past when confronted with a similar issue?

It’s one last chance to get a peek at the character and core of these men who want the most powerful job in the world. We get so few opportunities to see them without choreography: How are they measuring up? It’s a question worth pondering as we head to the polls.

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