Romney's challenge: How to campaign after Sandy

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney helps collect and pack donated goods as he attends a storm relief campaign event to help people who suffered from storm Sandy, in Kettering, Ohio, on October 30, 2012. Getty

News Analysis

In the wake of the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, Mitt Romney had a difficult decision to make: To campaign or not to campaign?

There were compelling cases to be made on both fronts. The argument for campaigning: The election is just one week away, two-thirds of the country is unaffected by the storm, and the candidates want to do everything they can to gain an edge in a very tight race.

The argument against: The storm was absolutely devastating in some parts of the country - more than 35 people are already reported dead, and more are expected- and campaigning during a time of national crisis comes with significant political risk.

Romney on Tuesday split the difference: He held an event in the crucial swing state of Ohio focused on relief for storm victims. Romney spoke for only five minutes and focused on relief efforts and the importance of the nation coming together, and rally attendees brought bottled water, tarps, fleece blankets, batteries and other supplies. But the event had the trappings of the campaign stop it was initially intended to be: Romney's biographical campaign video played before the candidate spoke, the crowd chanted "We want Mitt!", and press credentials billed the event as a "victory rally."

Romney will resume official campaign events on Wednesday in Florida, before traveling Thursday to Virginia for a trio of events. His campaign is urging attendees to bring storm relief donations to those events, but they are effectively the sort of campaign events he would be holding had the storm not hit. Paul Ryan, who backed off his attacks on the president on Monday and was off the campaign trail Tuesday, will be back on the trail with events in Wisconsin Wednesday.

Assuming the relief efforts continue to function smoothly, the storm looks increasingly like a political gift to President Obama. He can take advantage of the benefits that come from being a strong leader at a time of crisis without being seen as engaging in anything so craven as politics. (It's worth noting that the White House has already released four different photographs of the president dealing with the storm.)

Mr. Obama has cancelled his Wednesday campaign events in Ohio in order to continue monitoring the storm's fallout. He won't be able to make his political argument in a crucial swing state, but he will be showing up on TV screens all over the country to discuss what looks so far to be an effective federal response to the storm. On Tuesday afternoon, he stood before the cameras at the Red Cross, an organization viewed positively by the vast majority of Americans, to make an appeal for donations and say he was working to have the government "cut through red tape." On Wednesday, he travels to New Jersey to assess storm damage and express sympathy for the storm's victims.

From the perspective of the Obama campaign, it adds up to a pretty good tradeoff: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a prominent Romney surrogate who was discussed as a potential GOP vice presidential nominee, is lavishing praise on the president for his handling of the crisis. Christie took to the morning shows Tuesday to call the president's efforts "outstanding."

"I was on the phone for the third time yesterday with the president of the United States, he called me at midnight last night to check in on how things were going as he was seeing reports on how bad things were going in New Jersey," Christie said on "CBS This Morning." "He accelerated the major disaster declaration for New Jersey without the usual red tape, I can't thank the president enough for that, he signed that this morning. So I have to say this, the cooperation has been great with FEMA here on the ground and our intelligence center and cooperation from the president of the United States has been outstanding, he deserves great credit." Christie will join the president to survey storm damage on Wednesday.

And amid the praise, Mr. Obama is still getting his political message out: Bill Clinton is out on the stump making the case for the president in the swing states, and Vice President Biden is sitting for interviews with Univision in an effort to drive up the president's already large margins among Hispanic voters. Meanwhile, both candidates and the outside groups supporting them continue to run a barrage of advertising in the swing states.

The storm poses a far larger challenge for Romney, who wants to look empathetic in focusing on relief but not craven by continuing to engage in politics. It also brings with it new headaches: During his relief event on Tuesday, reporters asked Romney at least five times if he would eliminate the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, if he becomes president. Romney ignored the questions. His critics have pointed to Romney's comments during a Republican primary debate that disaster relief should shift toward being a responsibility of the states as opposed to the federal government.

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