One thing you can almost always count on in a presidential campaign is for something totally off the wall to occur, some bolt from the clear blue sky that nobody saw coming, and it often knocks one of the major candidates out of the running. Gary Hart being exposed as a philanderer, Joe Biden plagiarizing a speech, Ross Perot dropping out because “they” threatened to ruin his daughter’s wedding (whoever “they” were), Howard Dean’s bizarre “scream” that was aired on cable news channels 247,396 times in a 72-hour span.

While former Senator George Allen wasn’t technically in a presidential campaign yet when his “Macaca-lypse” occurred, he was widely considered a Republican frontrunner for 2008, so we’ve had at least one of these shockers already for this cycle. Many would probably argue that ex-Governor Mark Warner’s decision not to run would qualify as well on the Democratic side. What other surprises might be in store for us? Here are a few possibilities:

1. Health crisis: John McCain is no spring chicken, that’s for sure — if elected, he would be older than Ronald Reagan was when starting his first term. He has had skin cancer, and it’s no secret that the years he courageously spent in the “Hanoi Hilton” took a toll. If a serious health problem were to strike any of the top contenders, McCain would appear to be a likely target. Even if it wasn’t enough to actually force McCain out of the race, it could exacerbate already existing concerns about his age and still doom his chances.

2. Zipper problem: Rudy Giuliani has a history in this area, and if he turns out to be fooling around on Wife No. 3, Hizonner could be Hiztory. Of course, the candidates themselves aren’t the only ones to consider in this category. Hillary Clinton’s would-be First Gentleman could utterly ruin her chances if he has a relapse. I’m sure her campaign is eagerly awaiting confirmation that Bill has been ruled out as the father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby.

3. Change of heart: Barack Obama had previously laughed off questions about running for president in 2008, and essentially guaranteed that he would complete his first Senate term. If he doesn’t believe that he can close the gap with Hillary among black voters, he might decide that his first plan was the best one after all. He’s still quite young, and dropping out of the race might prove to be less damaging to his long-term prospects than running before he’s really ready and getting blown out. Of course, a change of heart can work the other way, as well, and both Al Gore and Newt Gingrich could shake up their respective party’s race if they decide to jump in after all.

4. Devastating gaffe: As Allen discovered, a seemingly minor screw-up can gain life on the Web and transform into a campaign-killing incident (hint: if someone who you know is working for the other side is pointing a camera directly at you, think before you talk). While John Edwards has been through a presidential campaign just a couple of years ago, already his campaign has had some not-quite-ready-for-primetime moments this time around. From the “volunteer trying to buy a PS3 at the evil Wal-Mart” incident to the blogger blowup that drowned out the rollout of his health care plan, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Edwards. While the candidate himself tends to carefully choose his words (at least, more carefully than his old running mate, John “the comedian” Kerry), it appears he needs to tighten the leash on his staff before they do something devastating.

5. Waffle wipeout: Mitt Romney’s latest double-reverse back-flip with one-and-a-half twists had him claiming that he voted in the Democratic primary in 1992 for Paul Tsongas because he thought he’d be more likely to lose in the general election. Only problem is, back then Romney gave different reasons for his vote, indicating that he really did support Tsongas, who also hails from Massachusetts. These types of flip-flops might not seem like a huge deal individually, but they build up a reputation, and sooner or later you get the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Romney appears to be hell-bent on testing that theory.

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