WASHINGTON – Hurricane Sandy added an unprecedented dose of uncertainty to an already unpredictable presidential race Monday, forcing President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney to scramble their campaign schedules and raising the possibility that some states might have to alter Election Day plans.
Obama canceled a campaign appearance in Florida and raced back to the White House, mindful that his performance leading the federal government response could become a major boon or liability to his re-election chances. Romney canceled campaign events for Monday night and today, and both campaigns curtailed fundraising efforts in states that Sandy was expected to hit.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was preparing for the possibility that widespread power outages and damage to polling places might not be remedied in some states in time for Election Day a week from today.
“We are anticipating that based on the storm, there could be impacts that would linger into next week and have impacts on federal elections,” FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said. “Our chief counsel’s been working on making sure that we have the proper guidance on how to support any actions that may be required” in areas that are declared disasters.
That includes determining whether states can be reimbursed for any work they must do to fix or move polling places damaged in the storm. “This will be led by the states,” Fugate said. “We’ll be in a support role.”
The storm will affect campaigning. Traveling will be more difficult, and last-minute rallies will have to be rescheduled.
Campaign workers in swing states such as Virginia and New Hampshire are likely to find it harder to knock on doors and staff phone banks.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Will this help President Obama? Will Romney do something that looks too political? We don’t know,” veteran Democratic strategist Tad Devine said.
Obama, who’d already canceled campaign appearances scheduled for later Monday and early today, abruptly dropped his appearance at a planned rally in Orlando, Fla., as well.
“The storm overnight picked up speed and intensity,” press secretary Jay Carney said. “And a decision was made that in order to return to Washington to monitor and oversee the efforts to prepare for the storm and respond to it, we needed to leave earlier than planned.”
The president’s quick move back to Washington was a contrast to his decision in September to attend a Las Vegas fundraiser the day after four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
At the time, senior adviser David Axelrod explained that Obama was in frequent contact with top advisers. On Monday, Carney brushed aside a question about why the president needed to be in the White House this time.
“It is essential, in his view, that he be in Washington, one of the areas that will be affected and where his team is, to oversee that effort and to be updated on it,” Carney said.
Obama addressed a national television audience Monday afternoon, updating the nation on the storm and urging people to heed the advice of local emergency management officials. “I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” he said.
Romney’s campaign canceled events planned for him as well as running mate Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan on Monday evening and today. At a rally earlier Monday in Avon Lake, Ohio, Romney urged people to donate to the American Red Cross. His offices were collecting supplies in affected states to offer storm victims, and in Virginia, were using a campaign bus to deliver supplies to storm victims.
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