Desolate: Sea water floods the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Monday, in New York. Sandy continued on its path Monday, as the storm forced the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds and soaking rain. (AP/ John Minchillo)
Superstorm Sandy forced President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney to curtail campaign activities Monday in critical battleground states, unexpectedly disrupting their carefully mapped out strategies for the final week of one of the closest presidential contests in recent history.
In the waning days of his re-election bid, Obama scrapped two days of campaigning and retreated from the trail. He hunkered down at the White House to oversee the government's response to the superstorm barreling across the Eastern U.S. — and to project presidential leadership.
"The election will take care of itself next week," Obama said, speaking to reporters at the White House after hastily flying back to Washington from Florida, where he ended up scrapping an appearance at a rally in Orlando with former President Bill Clinton.
Obama aides insisted it was not only the right decision, but also an easy one. Even with Obama locked in a tight race with Romney, the president would have risked appearing to put politics over the public's safety had he pressed on with his plans to campaign with Clinton in Florida and Ohio. And that could have been enough to turn off some still-persuadable voters at a critical juncture in the campaign.
Now Obama has the opportunity — and the responsibility — to show the type of command in a crisis that only the president can offer. While Romney can make symbolic gestures, like canceling most of his own campaign events Monday and Tuesday, he doesn't have the power to provide tangible assistance.
But as president, Obama oversees the federal government's preparations for the superstorm, and could bear the responsibility for any missteps in the government response. Obama advisers say they've learned the lessons 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.
Obama used both his words and his actions to sharpen the contrast between a candidate running for president and a candidate who already is president.
After returning to the White House on Monday morning, Obama walked through the rain straight into the Oval Office. He convened a meeting with top government officials in the Situation Room. And later, standing behind a podium bearing the presidential seal, he appealed to politically divided Americans to put their differences aside during the storm.
"We look out for our friends, we look out for our neighbors and we set aside whatever issues we may have otherwise to make sure that we respond appropriately and with swiftness and that's exactly what I anticipate is going to happen here," he said.
Romney went ahead with part of his campaign schedule Monday, but he canceled an evening event in Wisconsin and stops in Ohio and Iowa on Tuesday. The former Massachusetts governor blended his appeal for political support with one for his backers to make a donation to the Red Cross or other relief agencies "in any way you can imagine to help those in harm's way."
"Do your very best to help," he implored. Aides said the 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.
With the race in its final full week, most national polls showed the two presidential rivals separated by a statistically insignificant point or two, although some said Romney had a narrow lead for the overall popular vote.
But the election will be won or lost in the nine most competitive states that are not reliably Republican or Democratic. Republicans claimed momentum in these states, but the president's high command projected confidence. And 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 U.S. 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.
Now, with just nine days until Election Day, time is a precious commodity and canceling trips to the critical swing states may mean never having the chance to make them up. At least four battleground states are likely to be impacted by the superstorm: New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.
Obama's team had planned to kick off the final full week of campaigning with a trio of joint rallies with Clinton. The two presidents were supposed to spend Monday dashing from Florida to Ohio to Virginia rallying Democratic supporters and trying to sway the small swath of undecided voters. But the Obama campaign eventually gave in to the storm, sending Clinton to the Florida event on his own and Obama back to Washington.
Aides at Romney's campaign headquarters in Boston were scrambling to sketch out political contingency plans. In addition to postponing events, they planned to scale back criticism of Obama to avoid the perception that Romney was putting politics ahead of public safety.
With Obama at the White House at least through Tuesday, Clinton campaigned solo in Florida, then joined with Vice President Joe Biden in Ohio. Obama's campaign booked Clinton into Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin for the race's final days.