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2006's October Surprises (So Far)

Last-minute accusations are a time-honored political tradition, and this year has plenty in the races for governor in the Nov. 7 elections:
  • The front-runner in Massachusetts, Democrat Deval Patrick, is defending letters he wrote seeking the parole of convicted rapist Benjamin LaGuer. Patrick, a former federal civil rights prosecutor, said he believed at the time there were credible claims of racism among jurors. DNA later linked LaGuer to the crime and he remains in prison. If Patrick wins, he will be the state's first Democratic governor in 15 years as well as its first black governor.
  • Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich's re-election bid has been rattled by the revelation that a friend gave his daughter a $1,500 (euro1,195) check as a gift, shortly after the friend's wife took a state job, thanks partly to the governor's intervention. His Republican challenger, Judy Baar Topinka, features the governor's deer-in-the-headlights response in a TV ad.
  • Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez, fighting to build support in an open race for Colorado governor, had an ad campaign backfire. He accused Democrat Bob Ritter, the former Denver district attorney, of going easy on a criminal - but investigators say it appears information used in the ad came from a confidential federal database.
  • Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons, a Republican with a narrow lead for an open seat, denied accusations last week of assaulting a cocktail waitress and propositioning her for sex after an evening of drinking. The woman called police, gave a statement but did not press charges - though she also did not recant her accusations.

    Elections for Congress will be held nationwide on Nov. 7, and voters in 36 of the 50 states also will choose governors.

    Voters might sigh and roll their eyes, but strategists and academics say there is evidence that these kinds of surprises can help turn a race around. And it is no surprise that they are more likely to turn up in October, when attention is being paid to the race, rather than earlier in an election cycle.

    "Because of the way people collect political information, intermittently and not intensively, what they might read or hear about or see could make a pretty big difference in the final weeks of the campaign," said G. Terry Madonna, direct of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

    None has yet reached the explosiveness of the scandal over Republican Congressman Mark Foley's sexually explicit electronic messages to teenage congressional assistants, called pages, which has implications for which party controls of Congress.

    Still, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on gubernatorial campaigns nationwide, with Democratic strategists and pollsters seeing the possibility of turning around the Republican advantage in governorships, now 28 Republican to 22 Democrat.

    In Illinois, where one-term Democrat Blagojevich had been targeted as vulnerable, the governor's missteps have opened a window for his challenger.

    Topinka has long made allegations of corruption and cronyism part of her campaign against Blagojevich, and the news about the $1,500 check to his then 7-year-old daughter seemed custom-made to hammer home her point. Then a top fundraiser for the governor was indicted for trying to collect millions of dollars in kickbacks from companies trying to do business with the state.

    So far, Topinka has been unable to overturn his slim but consistent lead, partly because of her own ties to former Republican Gov. George Ryan, himself convicted and sentenced to prison on corruption charges.

    In Massachusetts, Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey has repeatedly attacked Patrick for his parole board plea, last week running a frightening ad of a woman being stalked that ends: "Deval Patrick, he should be ashamed - not governor."

    Patrick acknowledged writing letters on behalf of LaGuer, convicted of tying up and raping a 59-year-old neighbor in 1983.

    LaGuer had won support from others that included former Boston University President John Silber and historian Elie Wiesel, but that dwindled after DNA tests in 2002 linked LaGuer to the crime scene. Patrick said he now believes LaGuer is guilty.

    The campaign in Massachusetts, where Patrick has held a double-digit lead in polling, has grown increasingly nasty.

    A Healey ad criticized Patrick for defending a convicted cop-killer in Florida, while a newspaper story reported that Patrick's brother-in-law failed to register as a sex offender after raping his wife. Patrick accused Healey's supporters of leaking the story, and Healey demanded an apology.

    Other late-campaign accusations flare up and fade away, often because the race is not truly competitive - like the Tennessee candidate who called himself a hunter and fisherman, but had no record of a license either to hunt or to fish.

    The revelation could have hurt Republican Jim Bryson - except Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is already nearly untouchable, with pre-election polls giving him a more than 2-to-1 lead, one of the biggest in the country.

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