I could be wrong--it's happened before--but William Rehnquist's hospitalization could be the October surprise of this campaign.

Everyone knew, theoretically, that the Supreme Court was in play in this election. No shortage of aging justices. But suddenly we have the 80-year-old chief justice undergoing surgery for thyroid cancer.

If the media run hard with this, it will remind voters that the next president will probably get to fill numerous Supreme Court vacancies.

If you're a Bush fan, you want him there to continue to push the court in a rightward direction. If you're a Kerry fan, you like his litmus test--only pro-choice justices. But if you're an undecided voter who favors abortion rights, you might be motivated--by fear--to turn out if there are a spate of stories about whether Roe v. Wade can survive a second Bush term.

Equally important is this New York Times | http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/25/international/middleeast/25bomb.html?oref=login/"60 Minutes" scoop on 380 tons--that's tons-- of powerful explosives missing in Iraq. U.S. troops failed to safeguard the stuff. Could this shine the spotlight once again on charges that the administration has utterly mismanaged the occupation? Since Kerry and the Democrats have been charging that for a year, maybe it's already factored into the political stock market. But this is a potentially powerful piece of news, depending on whether the media treat it as a one-day story.

In pure campaign-trail terms, the sight of Clinton and Gore out on the hustings makes it feel like it's 2000 again (except that Al pretty much kept the prez out of sight). The somewhat gaunt-looking Clinton is sure to arouse some sympathy among the faithful (and keep his boys McCurry and Lockhart company). Interesting Kit Seelye factoid in the NYT: The once-impeached president's approval rating is now 48 percent positive and 38 percent negative, higher than that of either Bush or Kerry. Could there be a Clinton Factor in the swing states?

(And by the way, Dick Cheney, asked on "Today" about the WP's endorsement of Kerry, had this comeback: "I don't deem The Post to be a friendly paper." Gee, I don't recall the administration complaining about all those Post editorials backing Bush on the Iraq war.)

But will the end of the campaign just be devoted to arguing about polls (as Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann had guests do at the top of their shows)? I've just about given up on making sense of these poll. CNN has Bush by 5, the LAT has it tied, and the WashPost, which had Bush leading for days, now shows Kerry by 1. Go figure.

Some quick takes on the Rehnquist story. USA Today: | http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2004-10-25-rehnquist_x.htm "The chief justice's illness, announced eight days before the presidential election, raised an issue that has been in the background during a campaign that has focused on national security and terrorism: The divided Supreme Court, whose membership hasn't changed in a decade, is likely to have at least one vacancy in the next presidential term."

Chicago Tribune | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0410260180oct26,1,3428518.story?coll=chi-news-hed: "Partisans on both sides have focused intently on the next president's likely appointment of two or three Supreme Court justices, but it has not emerged as a major issue in the presidential campaign. That may change, however, as Rehnquist's hospitalization highlights the fragility of a court whose mostly elderly justices have served together for a decade."

Boston Globe: | http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2004/10/26/rehnquist_has_thyroid_cancer_will_keep_schedule/ "The news reminded voters set to decide the dead-heat presidential race between President Bush and Senator John F. Kerry that the power to appoint justices to the court could be the most far-reaching consequence of the election."

Washington Times: | http://washingtontimes.com/national/20041026-123128-1764r.htm "The surprise announcement of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's treatment for cancer underscores the likelihood that whoever wins next week's presidential election is likely to reshape the Supreme Court."

But that may be so only in a Kerry administration, says Slate's Dahlia Lithwick: | http://slate.msn.com/id/2108645/

"The possibility of Rehnquist stepping down also crystallizes how oversimplified the recent arguments about the power of Supreme Court appointments really are. Suddenly this 'four-seats-to-fill-with-whatever-maniac-he-likes' rhetoric is shown to be at least somewhat lacking in nuance. Because if Rehnquist steps down, and President Bush is re-elected, the 5-4 balance on the current court would remain unchanged. In fact, Bush might arguably have a hard time confirming someone as conservative as Rehnquist in the current Senate climate -- meaning that the net effect of a retirement could be a more moderate court, even with Bush in office.

"This is why a Rehnquist retirement would mean so much were Kerry to be elected: With the appointment of a liberal or even a moderate replacement, the 5-4 balance on the court would tip dramatically. The possibility of a Roe reversal would virtually evaporate overnight, as would the likelihood of a sea-change in affirmative-action law. It's a tough argument to make -- smacking of that ugly word, 'activism.' John Kerry can't really mobilize voters by saying Bush would replace a staunch conservative with a staunch conservative. He could score a point by saying this is a rare and precious opportunity to replace a staunch conservative with a moderate. But my guess is he won't. See 'activist' above. And whether Kerry really wants to make a campaign issue out of an old man's possibly terminal illness is doubtful.

"There is another, almost more intriguing (and equally unseemly) question raised by a possible Rehnquist retirement, with the presidential election just a week away: What would happen if the Supreme Court were asked to intervene again on any of the inevitable and innumerable Election Day lawsuits, any of which might ooze its way up to the high court? Would the Bush v. Gore court collapse into an elderly ball of scratching, biting, hair-pulling 4-4 indecision?"

Gawd.

The New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2004/10/26/politics/campaign/26campaign.html?hp&ex=1098763200&en=9041c394e6b0d150&ei=5094&partner=homepage follows its own explosive story:

"The White House sought on Monday to explain the disappearance of 380 tons of high explosives in Iraq that American forces were supposed to secure, as Senator John Kerry seized on the missing cache as 'one of the great blunders of Iraq' and said President Bush's 'incredible incompetence' had put American troops at risk.

"Mr. Bush never mentioned the disappearance of the high explosives during a long campaign speech in Greeley, Colo., about battling terrorism. Instead, evoking images of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and traveling with Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, at his side, Mr. Bush made an impassioned appeal to voters to let him 'finish the work we have started.' But he also charged that his opponent had abandoned the defense principles of Democrats like John F. Kennedy. . . .

"Asked about charges from the Kerry campaign that the White House had kept the disappearance secret until The Times and CBS broke the story on Monday morning, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said the White House had decided 'to get all the facts and find out exactly what happened in this case, and then whether there are other cases.'"

I'm sure they would have told us around November 3.

The Wall Street Journal chronicles the negative headlines facing the administration:

"President Bush is getting hit by a wave of bad news -- including further setbacks in Iraq and slumping financial markets -- just a week before a dead-heat election.

"Mr. Bush's ability to ride out the gloomy headlines hinges on a well-honed strategy that has served him for months: keeping the campaign focused on terrorism while trying to undermine public confidence in Democratic challenger John Kerry's ability to protect the country.

"Yesterday, that approach was on full display. At a Colorado rally, the president made only a passing reference to the latest woes in the U.S. and abroad, instead centering his barbed speech on accusing Sen. Kerry of 'a strategy of pessimism and retreat' on Iraq and miscalculating the broader terrorist threat. . . .

"Oil prices have shot to record highs, pushing up gasoline prices for drivers and heating-oil prices as winter looms. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has slumped, giving up all gains for the year, while the dollar slides toward a new low against the euro as investors harbor fresh doubts about the U.S. economy. A vaccine shortage has prompted senior citizens to stand in long lines for flu shots."

Ron Brownstein has more on that Los Angeles Times | http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/2004/la-na-poll26oct26,1,4121923.story?coll=la-home-headlines poll:

"The survey finds voters split exactly in half on Bush's performance as president - and almost exactly in half on his decision to invade Iraq. . . .

"Bush's message is helping him gain ground among lower middle income and less well-educated voters ambivalent about his economic record - but costing him with more affluent and better-educated families that have historically supported Republicans. Strikingly, Bush leads Kerry among lower- and middle-income white voters - but trails the Democrat among whites earning at least $100,000 a year.

"Bush also runs best among voters without college degrees, while Kerry leads not only among college-educated women (a traditional Democratic constituency), but among college-educated men - usually one of the most reliably GOP groups in the electorate. Consistently in the poll, cultural indicators prove more powerful predictors of candidate support than economic status."

The New York Post | http://nypost.com/commentary/32733.htm drops any semblance of impartiality, devoting its front page to "an open letter" to Kerry from conservative columnist Steve Dunleavy:

"John Kerry makes me weak in the ankles -- and now it's personal, not business.

"In the next few days, there will be a person reporting for duty in Iraq. His name is Army Capt. Peter J. Dunleavy.

"Capt. Peter J. Dunleavy is not one ounce more special than the guys and gals he will go to Iraq with -- no more special than the thousands of the brave boys and girls who have gone before him, and those who will certainly go after him.

"He is, of course, special to his wife, Debbie, his mother, Gloria, his brother, Sean, Sean's girlfriend, Laura -- and his friends in the sports bars who cheer for the Giants.

"He is special to me, as are all the thousands of boys and girls who serve this country, because he looks at fear as a headache and duty as the ultimate.

"And yet, John Kerry makes it look like those guys and gals are just victims -- wrong war, wrong time, wrong place.

"How dare he say that to our brave boys and girls? How dare he whisper it -- let alone shout it to the whole world?"

The Post, you may recall, is part of that "fair and balanced" company.

Josh Marshall | http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/index-old.php is aghast about the latest from Iraq:

"Could the al Qa Qaa debacle be a sinister and ingenious ploy on the part of the White House to give the public one more view of the goofball buck-passing that has been such an asset to the president's administration?

"'Look at the latest from Scott McClellan on Air Force One. This from CNN. . . .

"'White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush wants to determine what went wrong.

"'McClellan, on Air Force One, stressed that the missing explosives were not nuclear materials, and said the storage site was the responsibility of the interim Iraqi government, not the United States, as of June 28, when the United States turned over the nation's administration to the Iraqis.

"The president wants to determine what went wrong.'

"This reminds me of when I wanted to know why my Palm Pilot stopped working after I dropped it in the bath tub.

"Doesn't this capture Bush's entire presidency? The thing happened more than a year ago, his administration has taken active steps to cover it up and now that the truth finally comes out, he 'wants to determine what went wrong.'"

Michael Tomasky's | http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=8800 fuse is lit over the Iraq revelation:

"Now we know, via the stunning front-page report in Monday's New York Times, that the Bush administration's incompetence and arrogance has in all likelihood killed American soldiers," he writes in American Prospect. "The questions now are: Will the media in general push this shocking story in the campaign's final week? Or will they cave yet again to administration pushback -- which hasn't begun as I write these words but will surely commence soon -- designed to make the whole issue dissolve into a story that's 'too murky,' with 'both sides at fault'? Will they change the story line, and decide that in the final week of the most important presidential election in modern American history, we should instead be focused on whether John Kerry was right to wear camouflage fatigues, or on the danger to the republic posed by Teresa Heinz Kerry's off-the-cuff remarks?"

Is being ahead dangerous? Slate's Chris Suellentrop | http://slate.msn.com/id/2108607/ says it might be:

"Is John Kerry finally winning? His campaign, which only a week ago was defensive about the candidate's standing in the polls, is now more confidently asserting that he's pulled ahead. Before Friday, the Kerry campaign hadn't been willing to make that claim. Typically, the Bush campaign would argue that the president was leading in the race, and the Kerry campaign would respond by saying, no, it's a tie. But in a Friday afternoon conference call, Kerry's people finally started pointing to the scoreboard . . .

"That dynamic is in keeping with the 'spotlight' theory of the election being peddled by Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times. The theory goes something like this: Given that a slight majority of the electorate doesn't want Bush, and that a different but similarly slight majority doesn't want Kerry, the winning candidate will be the one who manages to keep the spotlight on his opponent's flaws, rather than his own.

"Up to now, I've rejected Brownstein's theory and argued that Kerry has to do more than just watch Bush lose. He has to win the separate 'referendum on the challenger' by persuading Americans that he's an acceptable replacement for the president. But if Brownstein is right, neither candidate should get too optimistic by polling data that shows him ahead. Because every time for the past few months that this race has been one man's race to lose, that man hasn't had any trouble finding a way to lose it."

Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com ponders the Clinton factor:

"Bill Clinton is an immensely talented campaigner, as even his detractors concede. Al Gore was too proud or too close to utilize him on the campaign trail four years ago. And he will always be a divisive figure. But his heart by-pass operation surely makes his current campaign swing less complicated. Everyone wishes him well, apart from a few malicious nutcases. He will be greeted as a rock star and now with a certain degree of compassion from the Democratic base. He can appeal to black voters in a way the stiff Kerry cannot. If he's deployed effectively this coming week, he could be the October Surprise of the Democrats."

With Jon Alter pushing the Kerry/Red Sox parallel, the Weekly Standard's | http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/004/830zwtlq.asp Paul Chesser goes negative on the Yankees:

"As a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, I couldn't be happier to deliver to you the following analogy between the now vanquished New York Yankees and the failures of big government policy. It's true: The parallels prove that a Leviathan state and attitude, without regard for individuality and incentive, produce failure.

"Like big government (run by the decision makers in Congress), the Yankees think that indiscriminately throwing lots of money at a problem solves it. For four years now, New York has missed out on a World Series championship, which owner George Steinbrenner believes is his, and his fans', birthright. It's a serious problem for them (illustrating another parallel, where big government often sees a problem where there is none). After each year's failure The Boss issues a new set of directives, backed up by his wallet, to address the team's shortcomings. Result: the largest payroll in history, reported to be between $180 million and $194 million this year. Add on the luxury tax he must pay because of Major League Baseball's revenue sharing system, and Steinbrenner had to ante up about $265 million this season.

"Like big government (and Congress), the Yankees build up their own power for power's sake. Because they have all the star players they want, the Yankees always stay good enough to win, keep everybody's attention. But it's a facade for a failed policy."

Have you seen Bush's "wolves" ad? Then don't miss this pushback by the newly formed Wolfpacks for Truth: | http://www.wolfpacksfortruth.org/index.html

"They told us we were shooting a Greenpeace commercial!

"When the camera crew showed up, we wondered why they were all driving Hummers. Our agent assured us it was a Greenpeace commercial and they paid TWICE our hourly steak rate. Little did we know we were being tricked into this vicious campaign attack ad.

"We are not terrorists!"