It takes a mighty big storm to close schools, tunnels and nuclear power plants along the East Coast. But it takes a true meteorological monster to slow down presidential-campaign operations a week before Election Day.
Hurricane Sandy has done all of the above.
As high winds and heavy rain lashed states from Virginia to New York on Monday, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney canceled campaign events, suspended fundraising e-mails and hunkered down for a storm that could have significant political implications.
Obama aborted swings through Florida and Ohio on Monday, leaving the stump speeches to former President Bill Clinton in order to return to Washington to monitor the federal government’s emergency response. (Clinton didn’t seem to mind too much.) “The President’s focus is on the storm and governing the country and making sure people are safe,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a conference call with reporters.
Romney pressed ahead with campaigning in Ohio and Iowa early Monday but scrapped planned appearances in Wisconsin, Virginia and New Hampshire. Both candidates have cleared their schedules for Tuesday. “Governor Romney believes this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harm’s way,” communications director Gail Gitcho said. A Romney campaign bus in Virginia loaded up with supplies on Sunday to deliver after the hurricane hits.
But as the candidates pulled off the trail — “out of sensitivity,” as Gitcho put it — the campaign spin continued at gale force, relying on ads and surrogates to deliver closing messages. In a last-minute play for crucial Ohio, Romney released a new ad on Monday seeking to turn the issue of the auto bailout, one of the President’s biggest selling points in the Rust Belt, against the incumbent.
“Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China,” the ad’s narrator says. “Mitt Romney will fight for every American job.” A quick fact-check: Romney also called for major automakers to go through bankruptcy in 2009, it is not unusual for Chrysler to produce Jeeps for Chinese consumption in China, and a Detroit News op-ed cited favorably in the ad criticized Romney for his “wrong-headedness on the auto bailout.” “It reeks of desperation because that’s what it is,” Messina said.
Meanwhile, the hurricane has unearthed old political controversies. The Huffington Post highlighted a comment from a GOP primary debate in which Romney suggested disaster relief should be more of a state responsibility. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” he said. Democrats sought to use the remark against Romney just as state and federal emergency response kicked into high gear.
For all the sniping, Romney and Obama tried to remain above the fray. At a midday news conference Monday at the White House, Obama gravely warned citizens not to ignore emergency officials. “Don’t pause, don’t question the instructions that are being given, because this is a serious storm,” he said. Asked about the campaign, the President claimed it wasn’t on his mind. “The election will take care of itself next week.”