Clinton rolls back the years to give Obama shelter from the storm

President elects to cancel joint appearance in crucial swing state of Florida

Orlando

The choreography of the last lap of the American election race was thrown into confusion yesterday as President Barack Obama abandoned a planned appearance in Orlando, opting instead to rush back to Washington aboard Air Force One to focus on overseeing emergency storm management for Hurricane Sandy.

One week from election day, both candidates were forced radically to redraw their campaigning plans as the mega-storm slammed into the US Eastern Seaboard.

But the political perils – and opportunities – were especially acute for Mr Obama who decided at the last minute to decamp from Orlando, where he had spent Sunday night, and hand the job of firing up a huge crowd to Bill Clinton – which the former President did with characteristic gusto.

Pressing his core supporters to vote early remained crucial, not least here in Orlando, which could decide who wins Florida state and therefore the election as a whole.

But Mr Obama was also determined to avoid the fate of George W Bush, who was damaged politically when he was seen watching Hurricane Katrina from afar and thereafter fumbling the federal response to it.

Upon returning to the White House, President Obama held a video conference with federal emergency response directors and emerged for a brief press conference.

"The election will take care of itself next week," he said. "Right now, our number one priority is to make sure we are saving lives."

Mr Obama also cancelled a planned rally tonight in Wisconsin as forecasters warned that the impact of the storm would span at least 48 hours and several states in the north-east. His challenger Mitt Romney, who was likely to steer clear of any early storm-related criticism of Mr Obama for fear of being seen to politicise a natural calamity as it unfolds, also cancelled today's campaign events.

Both campaigns said they would deploy resources to help distribute emergency aid in the coming days. They stopped sending fundraising notices to voters in affected states.

This was to have been the first time that Mr Obama and Mr Clinton had campaigned jointly. But if there was any disappointment among the thousands who filed early yesterday on to the campus of the University of Central Florida under blue skies expecting to see both men, no one said so.

Their apparent sangfroid was a reflection of one of the more striking narratives of the Democratic campaign – that no one has been selling Mr Obama like Mr Clinton does. Had Mr Obama not skipped out, it is possible Mr Clinton would have stolen the show here anyway.

"It's OK, Big Dog is here! Everything is all right," said Kim Brooks, who missed the opening of her own clothing boutique to attend the rally.

Lynn Guthrie, 80, a former Marine and Korean War veteran, who was due to give the pledge of allegiance but arrived too late after getting lost, agreed. "I understand. The President has to remain flexible. They weren't going to be able to land up there otherwise. And anyway, Bill Clinton is a good substitute".

Mr Obama himself may have been sending a musical love note to his predecessor when, just before Mr Clinton took the stage, a cover version of Ricky Martin's "The Best Thing about Me is You" blasted from the loud speakers. Once he got started Mr Clinton couldn't bring himself to stop for over 35 minutes. "Everyone within the sound of my voice should vote for Barack Obama," he cried out, triggering chants of "Four more years" from the crowd.

Adopting a sardonic tone, Mr Clinton eviscerated Mr Romney for allegedly peddling a budget plan that includes a 20 per cent across-the-board tax cut as well as new military spending without offering any details about how it would add up and not swell the deficit.

"Don't let anybody buy that siren song, don't let anybody buy a budget without numbers," Mr Clinton declared. "If you had a hole to fill would you dig it deeper before you filled it?"

He mocked Republican opposition to Mr Obama's healthcare reforms, which include a mandate obliging most Americans to acquire insurance. "Let's look at what this terrible, terrible law has done. Oh, it's awful," he said before outlining how it had benefited Americans.

"This individual mandate is a disaster," is the Republican chorus, he said. "You should have the right to have an accident and get sick and have everyone else pay for it."

Another concern for the Democrats as Hurricane Sandy came ashore was the disruption to early voting in several states, including North Carolina, which has become vital to fending off the recent surge in the polls by Mr Romney.

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