White House race beckons after Sandy's calm
WASHINGTON DC, United States - US President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney looked to console the nation and show leadership Tuesday, October 30, after a devastating storm struck days ahead of election day.
Both candidates scaled back their White House campaigns as Hurricane Sandy carved a path of destruction across the US eastern seaboard on Monday, October 29, with Obama returning to the White House to lead the disaster response.
Now they will have to tip-toe back onto the campaign trail, resuming their closely-fought battle for the White House and showing leadership in a time of crisis without being seen as exploiting suffering for political ends.
Romney, who canceled some campaign appearances Monday, was set to attend a storm relief event Tuesday in Ohio, a key battleground state, at the same place where a campaign event had been announced before the storm.
Obama can meanwhile harness the power of incumbency by directing relief efforts and addressing a storm-battered nation from its highest podium.
Coming so close to the neck-and-neck election on November 6, the historic storm threw closely planned campaign strategies into disarray as it threatened to dampen early voting, and drown out the candidates' closing arguments.
"The great thing about America is, when we go through tough times like this, we all pull together," Obama warned after meeting emergency officials at the White House and ditching events in battlegrounds Florida, Ohio and Virginia.
"The election will take care of itself next week. Right now, our number one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives," he said.
Romney also cancelled some events Monday evening as a mark of sensitivity towards millions in the path of the storm, but went ahead with scheduled appearances in Iowa and Ohio.
He was also briefed by the deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Richard Serino, on the storm relief effort, aides said.
"The damage will probably be significant, and of course a lot of people will be out of power for a long time," Romney said in Iowa Monday.
"Hopefully your thoughts and prayers will join with mine and people across the country as you think about those folks who are in harm's way."
"We love our fellow Americans -- wish them well," he said, and appealed for supporters to make donations to the Red Cross.
Romney must balance a desire to use the precious last days of the campaign to maintain momentum without appearing oblivious to suffering Americans.
He has already been accused of muscling in on tragedy for political gain -- over the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last month -- and so can ill afford any missteps seen as motivated by hope of an electoral dividend.
Equally, any errors by Obama in the wake of the storm could help Romney build his case that Benghazi was a symptom of a wider malaise and unraveling of leadership in the White House.
Top US office holders have been acutely aware of the potential of disasters to wreak a political price ever since president George W. Bush's bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.
High-level campaign operatives deplore events they cannot control, hence the fabled history of the "October Surprise" -- the sudden happening, at home or abroad, with the potential to reshape the late stages of an election.
For Romney, there is political danger in being seen as an afterthought as Obama shapes the narrative of the post-storm response, possibly squelching a head of steam the Republican has built up in recent weeks.
The hurricane and likely widespread power cuts in swing states like Virginia will also disarm plans by both campaigns to deluge voters with non-stop television advertising in the final days.
"We are winning this race," insisted Obama's senior aide David Axelrod. "We base it on cold, hard data based on who has voted so far and on state-by-state polling."
In a memo however, Romney's Ohio state director Scott Jennings said the president was facing a "nightmare" scenario in the key state.
Romney leads by a few points in some national polls of the popular vote, but Obama is clinging to a slim advantage in the state-by-state race to 270 electoral votes needed to secure the White House.
But Obama was up one point, a swing back to the president of three points from last week, in the latest GWU/Politico/Battleground poll Monday.
A CNN/ORC poll in Florida, the biggest swing state, meanwhile suggested the race there has tightened, with Romney leading by only a single point. - Stephen Collinson, Agence France-Presse