With just one week until Election Day, all
attention would normally be focussed on the candidates as they fly
around the country making last minute appeals for votes, but an
unexpected party crasher has changed all that.
Hurricane Sandy's pummelling of the eastern US has refocussed President Barack Obama on the duties of his office, as he coordinates federal emergency efforts and works with the governors of impacted states. While Romney had no official duties to oversee, he suspended campaign events and instead spoke to supporters collecting supplies for storm victims.
Both men faced a difficult political calculus. Obama needs to steer a steady course through a difficult time for the country and avoid the pitfalls of apparent insensitivity that damaged the image of former president George W Bush after hurricane Katrina in 2005. Romney also could not appear to disregard the disaster in favour of shiny campaign events or afford to bash Obama as he managed the response.
The storm nearly cut in half the time to campaign in the final week before November 6 elections - with Obama pledging to stay off the campaign trail until at least Thursday and Romney scheduling no events until Wednesday.
"As far as the president goes, he has real responsibilities," campaign advisor David Axelrod said Monday. "Those responsibilities come first."
He noted Obama was "going to lose a bunch of campaign time. But that's - you know, that's as it has to be. And we'll try and make it up on the back end. So for us, it's not a matter of optics. It's a matter of responsibility."
Still, harsh political ads continued to air in crucial swing states hit by the storm, such as Virginia and New Hampshire.
Yet even as Obama himself was kept away from purely political events and much of the country ignored political news, the president was to remain in the spotlight with plans to tour hurricane-ravaged New Jersey Wednesday and a stop at the Red Cross headquarters in Washington Tuesday.
The storm takes more attention from Romney than from Obama, but could also damage the Republican in another way. It drew focus to remarks he made in a debate during the Republican primary, suggesting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency's responsibilities should be shifted to away from the federal government to the states.
Romney ignored questions from reporters about whether he would eliminate the agency during a storm relief effort in Ohio Tuesday, but his campaign told news site Politico that he would not ax FEMA.
"Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams was quoted as saying.
"As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA."
Sandy could also impact voter turnout as early voting was set aside in some locations. Speculation abounded as to whether road closures and damage could be severe enough to keep voters away next week.
National Journal commentator Major Garrett wondered whether the storm could suppress Obama's showing in the national popular vote, even while have little impact on the final outcome of an election that is decided based on the winner in each state.
Storm damage could keep down turnout in the left-leaning states of Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, where it would still likely not sway the overall outcome of those state's expected support of Obama. If voters were kept away, it would be more damaging in the swing states of Pennsylvania or Virginia.
There was little patience in some quarters for speculation about the election or possible photo opportunities for the candidates.
"I'm sure that while the national election is obviously very important, that the people of New Jersey, in this moment, would really be unhappy with me if they thought for a second I was occupying my time thinking about how I was going to get people to vote a week from today," Christie told reporters.
"So, I don't give a damn about Election Day. It doesn't matter a lick to me at the moment. I have much bigger fish to fry than that."
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