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Gary Younge
Saddam and the midterm countdown

Bush makes a statement on Saddam.
Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyThey call it the October surprise - that unexpected last-minute event that can change the course of a November American election. Ever since Nixon convinced the South Vietnamese to pull out of negotiations in the dying moments of the 1968 presidential election, pundits have acknowledged the October surprise as the X factor that could throw their predictions off course.

This year it may have come late.

News that Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to death came too late for the pollsters but conveniently enough for the Republicans it arrived just as they started their infamous push to galvanise their base in the final 72 hours before the polls open.

The timing is more than suspicious. Whether this was deliberately engineered to boost Republican electoral fortunes or not is an important question - to tamper with a nominally foreign judiciary (given that the US appointed the judiciary it can hardly be considered independent) for domestic political ends is serious stuff.

But ultimately, the lasting relevance will be whether the sentencing, engineered or not, will have an effect on voting intentions.

Given that Saddam's capture is the sole "achievement" of Bush's war it may rally those among his base who were growing disillusioned with the war. But it is unlikely to change many minds. According to a Washington Post/ABC poll at the weekend, those who "strongly believe" the war was not worth it is the same number as the total number of those who think it was worth it.

In other words, minds are pretty much made up. Moreover, if news of the sentence sparks a rise in violence it could cement the idea that the American presence in the area is not helping. That, frankly, is the kind of help the Democrats could do without.

Meanwhile, as we continue our trek out west, over the Rockies, across Utah's moonscapes and on into the deserts of Nevada, the political landscape remains just as varied.

One thing that has become increasingly clear on this trip is how redundant and misleading the blue state/red state map of the presidential electoral college is.

Strong Democratic challenges in Iowa, Colorado and Nevada, where Bush won two years ago, show far more geographical nuance. Add the close races in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Missouri, Rhode Island and Connecticut into the mix and it becomes clear, as the House races on this New York Times map show, that this election is literally all over the place.

One upshot could be decimation of the Republican presence in the north-east in much the same way that the Tories all but completely disappeared from Scotland - a result that would, ironically, cement the perception of regional polarisation.

But as the election reaches its final stretch, the only thing the polls agree on is that the races are close, that, in the Senate at least, the Republicans are regaining ground and that almost anything could happen.

According to the Washington Post, the Democrats could take both houses. According to MSNBC, Republicans should keep control.

The common refrain that the only poll that counts is tomorrow's would be a reasonable one at this stage were it not for the fact many people are still not convinced that their vote will be counted. With new voting machines being road-tested up and down the country, trust in the process is at an all-time low - particularly among African Americans.

When the politicians have finished it may well be the lawyers' turn to get involved. November may not be done with its surprises yet.

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