WASHINGTON/DAVENPORT, Iowa (Reuters) - President Barack Obama suspended campaigning and returned to Washington on Monday to oversee the response to Hurricane Sandy, while his Republican rival Mitt Romney curtailed political events to show respect for the storm's potential victims.
As the storm cuts into the final week of campaigning in an especially close race for the White House, both men are trying to avoid coming across as overtly political while millions of people are imperiled by Sandy's fierce winds and driving rain.
Obama and Romney are virtually tied in the presidential contest, according to a Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll released on Monday. It showed the Democrat leading by a single percentage point eight days before Election Day.
With the hurricane dominating headlines, Obama used the bully pulpit of the White House briefing room to show he was on top of the storm response effort.
He warned Americans in Sandy's path that it could take a long time before power was restored and transportation systems were running again, and he dismissed concerns of the storm's effects on the election.
"I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election. I'm worried about the impact on families, and I'm worried about the impact on our first responders. I'm worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation," Obama told reporters.
"The election will take care of itself next week. Right now our number one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives."
Obama returned to Washington after cutting short a trip to Orlando, Florida, where he had been due to appear at a rally with former President Bill Clinton.
Romney said he was in touch with federal emergency management workers about the storm.
"The damage will probably be significant and, of course, a lot of people will be out of power for a long time," he said in Davenport, Iowa. "So hopefully your thoughts and prayers will join with mine and people across the country as you think about those folks that are in harm's way," he said, urging supporters to donate to the American Red Cross.
Romney canceled further events in Wisconsin on Monday night and in Iowa and Florida on Tuesday. Those states are out of Sandy's path, but the former Massachusetts governor does not want to be seen to be focusing only on the campaign in the midst of potential national disaster.
"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," said Romney communications director Gail Gitcho.
Ohio is one of a handful of political swing states that will determine the winner of the November 6 election, and both candidates have spent many days campaigning there.
Obama has held a consistent, if narrow, lead in the state, and his advisers believe his support of the U.S. auto bailout will put him over the top there. Ohio is home to the nation's second largest auto industry.
But a Rasmussen Reports daily tracking poll showed Romney ahead on Monday, getting support from 50 percent of likely voters compared to 48 percent who backed the president.
Clinton, who has been a popular surrogate for Obama, continued to hold events he was to have held with the president, both in Florida and in Ohio, where he joined Vice President Joe Biden on a campaign swing.
"I support Barack Obama because I think he's got a better jobs plan and a better jobs record, a better budget plan, a better education plan, a better healthcare plan than his opponent," Clinton told a cheering crowd in Youngstown, Ohio.
Romney's running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, campaigned in Florida, telling a crowd of 2,300 in Fernandina Beach that the Romney campaign would be turning its attention to helping people affected by the storm.
"We're staying in touch with regional leaders. We're offering assistance. We are collecting storm relief and supplies in our field offices in Virginia and Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, up and down the Eastern Seaboard," Ryan said.
Obama officials said the president's campaign schedule would be determined on a day-to-day basis. He scrapped another event scheduled for Tuesday in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and would remain at the White House, aides said.
Obama delivered pizzas to a local campaign office in Florida on Sunday night and told volunteers that the burden would increase for them because he would have to curtail his campaign activities there in coming days.
Florida, Wisconsin and Iowa also are critical swing states in the election, along with Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Sam Jacobs, and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao