— WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 before Election Day, neither candidate could afford to totally shut down operations. The political barbs continued on the airways 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 the "big and powerful storm" and warned the consequences could be deadly if people don't follow instructions from emergency officials.
The president attempted to appear above the political fray, dismissing any notion that he's thinking about the campaign, in response to a shouted question.
"The election will take care of itself next week," he said, pivoting back to the microphone to answer after turning 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 tend to. But, mindful of the optics of politicking while millions of Americans faced grave hardships, the Republican nominee followed suit by cancelling all events that he 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 campaign 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 urged the Ohio crowd to make a contribution to Red Cross or other relief agency "in any way you can imagine to help those in harm's way," then added a political footnote.
"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."
Obama rushed out of battleground Florida Monday morning ahead of a planned rally and called off Tuesday's trip to Wisconsin. 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.
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.
While the impact of the storm had yet to be seen, at the very least it was a distraction as both sides were looking to make their final appeals and millions of ballots were already being cast in early voting. It threatened to dilute Romney's efforts to close the deal with voters while giving Obama a platform to show leadership in the time of crisis. And power outages could end up cutting off their message in television ads and automatic phone calls in the eastern swing states.
Obama advisers said they said they were confident in their ground game even if Obama has to curtail his campaign appearances. Senior campaign adviser David Axelrod insisted Obama is winning even if Romney's campaign argues he's riding a surge.
"We're obviously going to lose a bunch of campaign time," Axelrod told reporters in a conference call. "We'll try to make it up on the back end."
Republicans concede that the storm essentially pushes a pause button on the momentum Romney had been building in key states across the country. 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.
Romney's campaign is considering a plan to send the candidate 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 in the wake of Hurricane Irene following the Republican National Convention, when he toured storm damage in Louisiana with Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a supporter.
Former President Bill Clinton still planned to appear before voters at the Orlando rally in Obama's absence. Later Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden were appearing together in Youngstown, Ohio.
Clinton planned to campaign in Minnesota Tuesday with likely stops on college campuses, before continuing on a tireless swing to help fill Obama's void this week to 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's path.
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."