Devastation sees election machines grind to halt

But Romney prepares for risky return to the campaign trail today with rally in Florida
  • @dusborne

Both camps in the US presidential race resisted ramping back up to full campaign mode last night as Hurricane Sandy laid to waste the best-laid plans for the final six-day stretch to the election.

With daylight revealing a toll of death, damage and flooding every bit as bad as had been feared, both candidates shied from politics-as-usual. For his part, President Barack Obama focused exclusively on managing the federal response. The White House said he would eschew normal campaigning again today and tour disaster areas in New Jersey.

In Ohio yesterday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appeared briefly at an event in Dayton that was billed as a benefit for victims of the storm rather than a campaign rally – although the distinction was somewhat blurred. But in a potentially risky move, his team announced that, unlike Mr Obama, the Republican challenger would return to the trail in earnest today with three rallies planned in the swing state of Florida, starting with a morning event in Tampa.

Striking just one week from polling day, Sandy has imparted a new layer of drama to a race that was already a nail-biter. Even as the main players protested that politics had to take second place to managing the effects of the storm, in reality, politics informed their every action. Both candidates had to make delicate calculations to ensure they carried themselves in a way that might aid them on polling day – or at least not damage them – without actually showing it.

For Mr Obama, that meant staying off the trail for one more day, even as the election marathon approaches its climax, and pulling every available lever to funnel federal aid to the areas most affected by the storm. That he will be framed for several days by the trappings of the Oval Office might benefit him. The storm meanwhile denies Mr Romney exposure, possibly interrupting the perceived momentum that he has built in recent weeks.

Moreover, as Washington mobilises to help victims, there is awkwardness for Mr Romney who has argued for a shrinking of the role of the federal government. More specifically he is on the record during a primary debate last year as saying he favoured eliminating the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) and transferring its role to the state level or even the private sector. In Dayton yesterday he ignored media questions about Fema.

There was praise meanwhile for the president from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who has worked hard on the trail for Mr Romney. His state, however, suffered the full force of the storm. "The president has been excellent at this," he commented. "I don't give a damn about election day. It doesn't mean a lick to me. I've got much bigger fish to fry than that… The president's been all over this. He deserves great credit."

Even so, as the death toll climbed last night, there was anxiety in Democrat quarters that the magnitude of the tragedy could have a negative impact on the mood of voters about the state of the nation. Meanwhile any perceived stumble in the federal response in the hours and days ahead could damage the president.

The White House said Mr Obama had monitored the storm all through Monday night, speaking with Fema officials and state governors. In the pre-dawn hours he declared a "major disaster" in New York and parts of New Jersey, including Atlantic City.

The Democrat campaign had not ground to a halt entirely. The Obama team released a new TV spot in Ohio excoriating Mr Romney for wrongly suggesting that Chrysler was shipping Jeep manufacturing jobs overseas, while former president Bill Clinton stumped for Mr Obama in Minnesota.