Sandy blows US election campaigns off course

 

The superstorm ravaging the U.S. East Coast laid waste to the campaign strategies of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney with just a week remaining in their intensely close race for the White House.

Obama canceled a third straight day of campaigning, calling off appearances scheduled Wednesday in Ohio, the most important of the battleground states. He will remain in Washington to monitor the storm and the federal response.

Obama had already canceled events Monday and Tuesday to manage the vast emergency that hit the heavily populated region between Washington and Boston and stretched toward Chicago and the Midwest. Vice President Joe Biden joined Obama in shunning campaign events.

Romney and running mate Paul Ryan initially announced they were cancelling events out of sensitivity for the millions of American's in Sandy's path. But Romney went forward with a planned event in Ohio, though it focused on storm relief. Ryan canceled three Colorado appearances.

Both candidates sought to avoid the appearance of putting politics above Americans' more immediate worries over flooding, power outages, economic calamity and personal safety.

With the outcome of the Nov. 6 election likely to be decided by the thinnest of margins, the storm will dominate news coverage and distract many millions of voters in the critical few days left for the candidates to win over those who remain undecided.

"When the nation's largest city and even its capital are endangered, when so many people are in peril and face deprivation, it's hard to get back to arguing over taxes," said historian and presidential biographer Douglas Brinkley.

Obama declared a "major disaster" in New York City and parts of New Jersey on Tuesday after being updated throughout the night.

He kept in frequent touch with leaders of affected states, prompting the highly partisan Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, to offer rare high praise.

"The president has been excellent at this," said Christie, a frequent Obama critic and Romney campaigner. "It's been very good working with the president and his administration."

In Ohio, Romney told an audience that Americans have "heavy hearts" because of suffering along the East Coast. He collected bags of relief goods from supporters and didn't mention Obama in his brief remarks.

Romney refused to answer repeated shouted questions from reporters about how he would run the Federal Emergency Management Agency as president. He said during the Republican primary race that he wants to return control of some federal functions to the states. Aides also ignored multiple email inquiries about whether Romney favors additional federal aid to help recover from Sandy.

Most national polls showed Obama and Romney separated by a statistically insignificant point or two, although some said Romney had a narrow lead for the overall popular vote.

The election will be won or lost in the nine most competitive states that are not reliably Republican or Democratic. Republicans claimed momentum in those states, but the president's campaign projected confidence. Romney's increasingly narrow focus on Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio suggested he still searched for a breakthrough in the Midwest to deny Obama the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

The president is not chosen by the nationwide popular vote, but in state-by-state contests that allocate electoral votes. Each state gets one electoral vote for each of its seats in the House of Representatives, as determined by population, and two electoral votes for each of its two senators. That means there are 538 electoral votes, including three for Washington, D.C. The winning candidate must have 50 percent, plus one, or 270 votes.

Obama is ahead in states and Washington, D.C., representing 237 electoral votes; Romney has a comfortable lead in states with 191 electoral votes.

Millions were without power Tuesday as the deadly superstorm whipped its way through presidential battlegrounds like North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire. It sprawled as far inland as the Great Lakes, where gales threatened lakeside regions in Ohio and Wisconsin, two other swing states where the contest will be decided.

Shifting from his role as candidate to president handling a crisis, Obama abandoned a Florida event Monday with former President Bill Clinton to return to Washington. He received a briefing from his top emergency advisers, his second in as many days. He addressed reporters at the White House, warning that recovery from the giant storm would not be swift.

Obama expressed concern over the storm's effect on the economy, and the disruptions in New York's financial district were bound to be among those that preoccupied the administration Tuesday. Storm damage was projected at $10 billion to $20 billion, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Unwilling to cede the mantle of leadership to Obama, Romney spoke by phone to Richard Serino, deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Addressing supporters in Iowa on Monday, he cautioned, like Obama, that the damage would likely be significant.

In the competition for attention, however, Obama held a clear edge. His pronouncements in advance of the storm dominated television coverage Monday as he told the nation, "It's going to be a difficult storm. The great thing about America is when we go through tough times like this, we all pull together."

But Obama could bear the responsibility for any missteps in the government response to the storm. Obama advisers said they had learned from President George W. Bush's widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Bush was seen as ineffective and out of touch, and his presidency never recovered.

Aides at Romney's campaign headquarters planned to scale back criticism of Obama to avoid the perception that Romney was putting politics ahead of public safety.

Aides said Romney might visit with storm victims later in the week, much as he did when Hurricane Isaac raked the Gulf Coast during the week of the Republican National Convention.

Obama's team had planned to kick off the final full week of campaigning with a trio of joint rallies with the hugely popular Clinton, trying to sway the small swath of undecided voters.

With Obama at the White House, Clinton campaigned solo in Florida, then joined Biden in Ohio. Obama's campaign booked Clinton into Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin for the race's final days.

AP

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