* Campaigns on hold as Sandy roars ashore
* Storm may hamper get-out-the-vote efforts
* Aftermath provides opportunity, risk for Obama
By John Whitesides and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Oct 29 A tense and unpredictable
race for the White House became even more so on Monday, as
mammoth storm Sandy created delicate political challenges for
President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney and
raised the possibility of a chaotic voting process.
As the deadly storm barreled ashore on the paralyzed East
Coast, the presidential campaign went into what amounted to a
deep freeze just when Obama and Romney had planned to launch
their final push for votes in the Nov. 6 election.
Suddenly, the final eight days of what has been a bitter
fight for the hearts of voters in a politically divided
electorate has become a test of crisis leadership for Obama -
and a time when harsh political rhetoric seems out of line.
Both sides promised to put aside politics to deal with the
fallout from the storm. But privately, they fretted about the
storm's potential impact on a week of candidate appearances and
door-to-door campaigning by volunteers that is so crucial in
There also is concern about the impact on early voting - a
priority for both campaigns but especially Obama's - and
Election Day itself, if predictions that millions of people and
their polling precincts could be without power well into next
week come true.
"It's a totally unpredictable situation that can play out in
many different ways, with risks and rewards for both candidates
- which is exactly why political consultants on both sides are
very scared right now," said Julian Zelizer, a historian at
Princeton University in New Jersey.
The crisis gives Obama, who as president is chiefly
responsible for the government's response to the storm, an
opportunity to show the presidential leadership that Romney
frequently accuses him of lacking.
If Obama is seen as falling short, the memory of the
political damage suffered by then President George W. Bush and
his Republicans over the government's botched response to
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is a haunting reminder of the
On the other hand, a strong effort by Obama's White House in
responding to the storm could provide a positive, lasting image
to Americans as they head to the polls next week - assuming
polling places will have power and be open.
Obama canceled campaign rallies planned for Monday and
Tuesday and returned to the White House from Florida to meet
with federal emergency officials.
Romney's team, after initially making plans to continue
campaigning, apparently reconsidered and announced late Monday
morning that the former Massachusetts governor would cancel a
rally in Wisconsin on Monday night, and its schedule on Tuesday
Romney joined Obama in appealing for donations to the Red
Cross and offered sympathy for those in the storm's path.
For Romney, the hurricane threatens to sideline him for
precious days in the campaign's final week, disrupting his
efforts to cast himself as the candidate with momentum in the
It also forces the Republican challenger to walk a fine line
when considering whether to launch political attacks against
Obama as the president deals with a crisis.
And if the government's response to the storm is broadly
deemed a success, it could be a stark reminder that Romney has
advocated dramatically cutting back funding for federal relief
agencies, saying that such duties should be shifted to the
states or perhaps the private sector.
"This throws a monkey wrench into the campaign for both
sides," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said. "Nobody wants
to look political in the middle of a crisis."
Without official duties to carry out, Romney could be
relegated to visiting local relief centers while trying not to
hinder rescue workers. Romney's running mate, Wisconsin
congressman Paul Ryan, told supporters at a Florida rally on
Monday that the campaign would turn its attention to helping
those affected by the storm.
In contrast, Obama can use the full power of the presidency
to issue directives and announcements, and play the role of
sympathizer-in-chief - as he did on Monday, when he appeared in
the White House briefing room to announce storm preparations and
urge those in Sandy's path to take cover.
"I'm not worried at this point about the impact on the
election," Obama said in response to a reporter's question about
the campaign. "I'm worried about the impact on families, and I'm
worried about our first responders."
STATES OVERSEE ELECTIONS
The storm already has disrupted early voting in several
states - including Virginia, one of eight or so key battleground
states in the presidential race.
But as the scope of the potential damage from Sandy became
clear on Monday, there was speculation over whether Election Day
voting could be affected, and whether voting might be prolonged
to allow people to get to the polls.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator
Craig Fugate said there could be a lingering effect on Election
Day, and he promised the agency would help any state requesting
it. He said FEMA was examining how much it can pay to help
rebuild any polling stations destroyed in the storm.
It would take an act of Congress to change the election from
its legally prescribed date: the first Tuesday after the first
Monday in November.
But because the details of carrying out U.S. elections are
left to the states, any decisions on whether to extend voting
hours for the election would more likely be made on a
That creates the potential for uneven responses to any
disruption in voting - and the possibility that state politics
could affect such decisions.
For example, one state could extend voting hours on Nov. 6
to make it easier for people to reach the polls and offer more
options for early voting or voting by mail to ensure that every
eligible voter could cast a ballot.
But another could stick to the same hours, even if it means
many residents could not cast ballots.
Sandy's impact could be greater in rural areas, where Romney
generally is more popular than Obama. Power typically is
restored more quickly in cities, urban roads are less likely to
stay blocked by flooding or downed trees and residents are more
likely to be able to walk to their polling places.
In theory, a state could bypass the public altogether and
have its legislature choose the "electors" who decide who the
state will back for president. The U.S. Constitution does not
mandate that electors are chosen by popular vote.
A Democrat-controlled state, such as Massachusetts or
Maryland, could pick electors to support Obama.
But a state's Republican-controlled legislature - such as in
Ohio or in Virginia, where Governor Bob McDonnell is co-chairman
of Romney's campaign - could ensure its votes went to Romney.
This scenario worries some Democrats, who note that Florida,
which decided the bitterly contested 2000 election, was governed
by Jeb Bush, brother of Republican George W. Bush, who won the
presidential race despite losing the popular vote by half a
A "SLAP IN THE FACE"?
It is unclear how enthusiastic many Americans along the East
Coast will be about voting after dealing with the storm and its
fallout for more than a week before Election Day.
Obama's handling of the storm could inspire or anger some
voters, but some analysts said voters might be in a foul mood
regardless of the president's performance.
The storm "could be a slap in the face that adds to a
depressed feeling," Zelizer said. "Obama wants to end this
campaign on brighter images of the economy doing well, not on
images of people suffering and struggling."
Fergus Cullen, a former Republican state chairman in New
Hampshire, played down the hurricane's potential impact on the
"If anything, this will give both campaigns a little
breather," Cullen said. "I don't think the response to the storm
is going to change many minds at this point."