ORLANDO, Fla. - President Barack Obama returned to the White House on Monday morning to monitor the progress of Hurricane Sandy, skipping a joint campaign rally with former President Bill Clinton at the University of Central Florida.
The rally went ahead as scheduled, featuring Clinton and other prominent Democrats, went on as planned.
The president had already scrapped campaign events Monday afternoon and Tuesday to focus on the hurricane that threaten to drench 700 miles from the mid-Atlantic states to New England.
The storm also caused Gov. Mitt Romney to alter his schedule, but not leave the campaign trial. The former Massachusetts governor cancelled stops in Virginia, a pivotal swing state expected to be hard hit by the storm.
The GOP standard bearer is expected at a rally Wednesday evening at Jacksonville's Veterans Memorial Arena.
Meanwhile, Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, will keep to his schedule Monday, planning to make a campaign appearance at 1:30 p.m. at Main Beach Park in Fernandina Beach. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. and tickets are required. (Watch rally live on News4Jax.com at 2 p.m.)
Vice President Joe Biden canceled a Saturday event in Virginia and one scheduled for Monday in New Hampshire. Both campaigns cited a desire not to use resources better targeted toward pre-storm preparations.
Ann Romney, who was slated to campaign in New Hampshire on Monday, canceled her events, and the Romney campaign said the bus that was to be used for her visit would instead be deployed for "relief efforts throughout the East Coast." Both campaigns said they were suspending fundraising e-mails to supporters in Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.
Obama has spent months trying to balance his re-election bid with running the government.
Now, just when his campaign needs him the most, his official job is beckoning. It's Obama who oversees the federal government's preparations for the looming storm and it's Obama who will bear the responsibility for any missteps.
In the tight race, the candidates have few opportunities left to blitz through the most competitive states, trying to build momentum and make a final pitch to undecided voters.
The president's handling of the storm could sway those late-breaking voters. If Obama is perceived as a strong leader who shows command in a crisis, some undecided voters may be compelled to back the president. But a botched response or a sense that he's putting politics over public safety could weaken his support at a point in the race where there's little chance to reverse course.
"I think that the president of the United States is the commander in chief. The American people look to him, and I'm sure he will conduct himself and play his leadership role in a fine fashion. So I would imagine that might help him a little bit," said Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008.
"But I'm not sure it will affect votes. People have been exposed to this very long campaign," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Obama advisers say they've learned the lessons from President George W. Bush's widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush was seen as ineffective and out of touch, and his presidency never recovered.
That's why Obama's team has moved quickly throughout the year to avoid the impression that the president was shirking his responsibilities, even as the campaign ramped up.
When separate crises struck Colorado this summer -- destructive wildfires and a mass shooting at a movie theater -- Obama hastily arranged trips to meet with victims and their families. When a hurricane barreled through the Gulf Coast ahead of the Democratic Convention, the president added a stop in New Orleans to his preconvention itinerary.
But those decisions were far easier than what's facing Obama's team. Back then, there was time to add or reschedule trips. Now, with just nine days until Election Day, time is a precious commodity and canceling trips may mean never having the chance to make them up.
Hurricane Sandy was expected to hit the East Coast late Monday, then combine with two winter weather systems as it moves inland, creating a hybrid superstorm. At least four battleground states are likely to be hit: New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.
Obama plans to spend every day between now and Nov. 6 on the road in most of those states and others, though his schedule does call for him to be back in Washington some nights.
Challenger Gov. Mitt Romney canceled three events in Virginia on Sunday and planned to spend the day campaigning with running mate Paul Ryan in Ohio.
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