WASHINGTON — Hurricane Sandy overran White House politicking Monday, with President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney calling off campaign rallies as the strengthening storm bore down on the East Coast.
With eight days to go before Election Day, Nov. 6, neither candidate could afford to totally shut down operations. The political barbs continued in campaign ads and between aides trying to show the upper hand in a race as tight as ever.
Obama, trying to show effective leadership in a time of impending crisis across some of the country's biggest population centers, met with federal officials monitoring the storm from a video hook-up and then addressed the country from the White House. He repeated that his administration is ready to help respond to and warned that the consequences could be deadly if people don't follow instructions. "The great thing about America is that when we go through tough times like this, we all pull together," Obama said in a six-minute appearance.
The president turned aside a shouted question about the storm's impact on the campaign, saying safety was his top priority.
"The election will take care of itself next week," he said, pivoting back to the microphone to answer after having turned to leave. "Right now, our number one priority is to make sure we are saving lives, that our search and rescue teams are going to be in place, that people are going to get the food, the water, the shelter they need in case of emergency and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track."
Romney didn't have official duties to allow him to play a commanding role, and his Boston-based campaign staff debated whether to keep him on the trail away from the storm's path. But they were mindful of the optics of politicking while millions of people faced grave hardships and canceled events Romney and running mate Paul Ryan had scheduled for Monday night and Tuesday.
"Sandy is another devastating hurricane by all accounts, and a lot of people are going to be facing some real tough times as a result of Sandy's fury," Romney said at a stop in Ohio. He also planned to stop in swing state Iowa before standing down as the storm was predicted to make landfall Monday night.
Romney's campaign considered a plan to send him to New Jersey later this week, where he could meet with victims and gauge damage with political ally Gov. Chris Christie. The move would follow the path Romney took after Hurricane Isaac following the Republican National Convention, when he toured storm damage in Louisiana with Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a supporter.
Romney urged the Ohio crowd to make a contribution to the Red Cross or other relief agency "in any way you can imagine to help those in harm's way." Then he turned to politics.
"I know the people of the Atlantic Coast are counting on Ohio and the rest of our states," Romney said. "But also I think the people of the entire nation are counting on Ohio because my guess is that if Ohio votes me in as president, I'll be the next president of the United States."
Romney's Ohio director, Scott Jennings, issued a public memo arguing that the candidate was surging there.
"The daydream Chicago was having a few weeks ago about Ohio coming off the board has been replaced by their nightmare of Romney momentum fueled by our ticket's performance, our goal-shattering ground game and an unmistakable feeling among independent voters that Barack Obama has no plan for the next four years," Jennings wrote.
Obama's plans to campaign Wednesday in Ohio were still on, though campaign officials said they were evaluating travel plans on an almost hourly basis. The president rushed out of battleground Florida on Monday morning before a planned rally that went on with former President Bill Clinton as his stand-in. Obama also called off Tuesday's trip to Wisconsin.
Four critical election states are affected by the storm — North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire.
Polls suggest Obama has an advantage in reaching the required 270 Electoral College votes. But Romney's campaign is projecting momentum and considering trying to expand the playing field beyond the nine states that have garnered the bulk of the candidates' attention.
Republicans concede that the storm essentially pushes a pause button on his efforts. They insist they are in strong positions in battlegrounds like Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Iowa, but acknowledge that Virginia could be a problem. Romney was forced to cancel three rallies planned for the state on Sunday and it's unclear when he'll be able to return.
Obama advisers said they said they were confident in their ground game even if Obama has to curtail his campaigning.
"We're obviously going to lose a bunch of campaign time," senior campaign adviser David Axelrod told reporters in a conference call. "We'll try to make it up on the back end."
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters on the same call that they would start running ads in Pennsylvania to counter a pro-Romney effort in the state. Restore Our Future, a super PAC founded by former Romney aides, planned to spend $2.1 million on television ads criticizing Obama's economic record to put the state in play. But Messina insisted the state is safely in the president's column.
"The Romney campaign wants you to think they are expanding the map, but it's not," Messina said.
Clinton appeared before voters in Orlando, Fla., in Obama's absence and did not shy away from hot-button campaign issues, including the economy, education and energy policy, in making a case for the president's re-election.
Later Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden were appearing together in Youngstown, Ohio. Then Clinton planned a tireless swing to help fill Obama's void this week in Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
Both campaigns used social media to urge supporters to donate to the Red Cross and said they would stop sending fundraising emails on Monday to people living in areas in the storm zone.
Romney staffers in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia were collecting storm-relief supplies at campaign offices to be delivered via one of Romney's campaign buses. In an email, Romney encouraged supporters in the storm's path to help neighbors get ready.
"For safety's sake, as you and your family prepare for the storm, please be sure to bring any yard signs inside," the email read. "In high winds they can be dangerous, and cause damage to homes and property."