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Analysis: A Time When Candidates Dream of Political Buzzer Shots

It's the time of year when trailing candidates tell voters to ignore the polls and fill them with stories of past campaigns that came from behind to win. Front-runners try to keep their thoughts on more pleasant histories.

Ann Richards (l) on the campaign trail in 1988 and Clayton Williams during the campaign in 1990

Before every election, trailing candidates often start talking about winning campaigns of the past — from Abraham Lincoln to Ann Richards — that were running behind at this point and surged to victory. The candidates in front have the opposite view: Those turnarounds are nightmare material.

This recurrent idea — that something is going to save or ruin a campaign in its final weeks — has a kernel of truth at its center: What the voters are talking about in September is not always what is on their minds when it is time to vote.

It is sometimes the result of late news that changes the tenor of a race — the so-called October Surprise. Remember the stories about the 1976 drunken driving arrest of George W. Bush? Those landed just before the neck-and-neck 2000 election for president — an election that ultimately was decided by the United States Supreme Court and put Bush in office. Whatever else you can say about that one, you have to admit that it was a close race.

His father, President George Bush, lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton in 1992. The late-breaker that time was the indictment of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Maybe it made a difference and maybe it did not, but the timing raised Republican eyebrows — and tempers.

Richards won her nomination for Texas governor in 1990 after a brawl of a Democratic primary that reached one of several low spots in the days before her runoff against Jim Mattox, then the attorney general. Mattox accused her, on national TV, of using cocaine in the bathroom of an Austin hotel years before. Richards, a recovering alcoholic, refused to talk about the particulars of her substance abuse throughout that campaign, and Mattox’s late charge fell short.

But late news sealed the electoral fate of her Republican opponent in that year’s general election.

A campaign train that took Clayton Williams Jr. and a pack of supporters and reporters on a ride from San Antonio to Houston pulled into the Texas A&M graduate’s beloved College Station, a staged whistle-stop that conveniently put a building named for Williams right in the picture.

It was the Friday before the election, and Williams, a Republican, planned to ride the train to Houston, fly to Laredo for some Saturday campaigning and then end back in Houston going to church and then to a phone bank with the original President Bush. It was supposed to be a safe close to a wobbly campaign that had frittered away a large lead over Richards and turned what appeared to be an easy win into a real contest.

A gaggle of traveling reporters formed around Williams at the College Station stop, and one asked him whether he had paid income taxes — a subject Richards had been pressing as the campaign drew to a close. “Yes, I’ve paid lots of income tax, lots, lots,” he said. “I’ll tell you when I didn’t pay any income tax was 1986, when our whole economy collapsed.”

In a funny piece of timing, the Williams campaign and the Richards campaign happened to arrive at the same airport terminal at the same time that evening, and news of that gaffe traveled from one campaign to the other in those pre-cellphone days. It gave Richards a rallying point for that final weekend, and she won the race on the following Tuesday.

Sudden and unexpected things can change the political environment in a hurry. But they are called surprises for a reason, and if it was easy to plan something like this, voters would get a fresh thrill every two years.

Texas Republicans have been relatively successful in their attempts to make the 2014 election a referendum on the Obama administration and its policies — particularly on the Texas-Mexico border. That has created a headwind for Democrats in a state where they have not put together a statewide win since 1994.

Perhaps they can find some comfort in the federal election of 1864. The South had been winning battles in the Civil War. Voters were then in a habit of giving presidents one term. And the Democrats had George B. McClellan, former commander of the Army, as their candidate. Even Lincoln expected to lose.

But in September, Atlanta fell. And in November, voters chose Lincoln.

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