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Hurricane Sandy swallows presidential campaign

With the presidential election just over a week away, the candidates would normally be campaigning in the swing states in an effort to gain a last-minute edge in what is expected to be a razor-thin race.

But with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the eastern seaboard, the men at the top of the ticket are putting their campaigns on hold. And both sides are scrambling to figure out what impact the storm will have on who emerges victorious next Tuesday.

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President Obama cancelled a Monday campaign stop in Florida and Tuesday stops in Wisconsin and Colorado to monitor the storm in Washington. After briefing reporters about storm preparations Monday afternoon and urging Americans to listen to local and state officials, he was asked about the impact it will have on the campaign. The president said he is "not worried at this point on the impact on the election."

"The election will take care of itself next week, right now our number one priority is to make sure we are saving lives," he added.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, cancelled events in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Virginia, though he did hold a campaign event in Ohio on Monday morning and plans to hold an afternoon event in Iowa. Like Mr. Obama and Vice President Biden, Romney and running mate Paul Ryan will be off the trail on Tuesday.

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"Governor Romney believes this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harms way," said Romney communications director Gail Gitcho. Romney is asking supporters in affected states to bring yard signs inside and for Americans to stay out of harms way; at his stop in Ohio Monday, he tacked a political appeal onto a call for Americans to donate to charity for storm relief.

"I know the people of the Atlantic coast are counting on Ohio and the rest of our states, but I also think the people of the entire nation are counting on Ohio," he said, "because my guess is, my guess is, if Ohio votes me in as president, I'll be the next president of the United States."

There has been no shortage of speculation over what impact the storm will have on the election. One thing that's clear is that it has thrown a wrench in both sides' carefully-calibrated plans for the final week of the campaign. With the storm dominating news coverage, the campaigns have been deprived of the nation's attention at a time when they would otherwise be making their closing argument to the public. That could mean the race is effectively frozen in place - a dynamic which would seem to favor the president, who polls show holds a narrow lead in enough swing states to get the 270 votes he needs to win reelection.

But the storm is also making it more difficult for Americans to get to the polls for early voting - something that David Axelrod, a top adviser to the president's campaign, said Sunday has him concerned.

"Obviously, we want unfettered access to the polls, because we believe that the more people come out, the better we're going to do," he told CNN. "And so, to the extent that it makes it harder, that's a source of concern." In addition to voters' ability to get to polling stations during the storm, there could also be problems related to early votes by mail getting to election officials in a timely manner.

Asked Sunday about the potential impact on voting, the president said, "We don't anticipate that at this point but we're obviously going to have to take a look." The problem could be less significant than it seems at first glance: Almost none of the swing states affected by the storm have early voting, and unless the storm is devastating, they should have their polling places up and running by next Tuesday. (Virginia does allow absentee voting in person before Election Day, but only for select residents.)

The president does not want to be seen as playing politics at a time of national crisis, and he is not expected to attack Romney on the stump until the worst of the storm has passed. It seems possible that the storm will ultimately help the president, since it provides him the opportunity to provide a steady hand during a crisis while looking, well, presidential. The potential downside: If the response to the storm is seen as botched, the blame will land at least to some extent at the president's feet. (Exhibit A: The beating President Bush took in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)

On Monday afternoon, Mr. Obama sent an email to his campaign fundraising list encouraging supporters to visit ready.gov, listen to state and local officials and donate to the Red Cross. "Michelle and I are keeping everyone in the affected areas in our thoughts and prayers. Be safe," it read. The email was signed "Barack."

While the storm rages, Mr. Obama is letting his allies pick up the political slack. Former President Bill Clinton plans to hit a flurry of swing states: Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, the last of which had until recently been thought to be solidly blue. A campaign official told CBS News that Mr. Clinton "will continue to lay out the choice for the American people in this election, and states with strong Democratic bases, where he will fire up supporters and urge them to help do everything they can to help us turn out every vote possible for President Obama." Vice President Biden, meanwhile, filled in for the president and campaigned with Mr. Clinton Monday afternoon in Youngstown, Ohio. Biden cancelled planned Tuesday and Wednesday campaign events.

Campaigning for Democrat Chris Murphy in Connecticut Sunday, Mr. Clinton compared the storm to Romney winning the presidency. "We're facing a violent storm," he said, before adding: "It's nothing compared to the storm we'll face if you don't make the right decision in this election."

Unlike the president, Romney is keeping on the attack - presumably because he has little to gain from standing by quietly as Mr. Obama oversees the federal response to the storm. In Ohio on Tuesday, Romney said the president falsely believes America is "on the right track."

"My view is that this track is the wrong course for America, that this is a turning point for America, and as a result those people in this country who want real change from day one are going to vote for Paul Ryan and myself," he said.

The University of Southern California's Dan Schnur, who was communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, said that "there's only so much you can do as a non-incumbent."

"Nothing either candidate says on the campaign trail is going to matter to voters in these states, so the best you can do is concentrate on those states that are out of the path of the storm, express your concern to those that are in its path, and if you're smart get some pictures taken loading up relief packages," he said.

The storm is also complicating the efforts of the campaigns and outside groups to work the "ground game" - the hard work of knocking on doors and reaching out to voters to make sure they get to the polls. This is an area where Mr. Obama is seen as having the advantage in most swing states. One group on the left, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Sunday it had purchased a generator and a "boat-load of supplies" to keep its Virginia election call center running. The group said it made more than one million calls on Sunday.

The campaigns have yet to say whether they will be cancelling their attack ads due to the storm. For Americans who lose power, the ads won't matter. But the fact that many Americans are tuning to local newscasts during the storm could mean a higher viewership for the ads in counties where the lights are still on. The campaigns have a roughly equal number of ads on the air, the New York Times reports, with Mr. Obama holding a slight advantage over the past month. 

As of now, the candidates' schedules going forward are uncertain, and they will depend on just how hard Sandy hits. "We're still trying to figure it out, but his focus has to be on the storm," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters Monday. Both campaigns are now grappling with the reality that despite their best efforts, Mother Nature has the power to inject huge and unexpected factors into what is shaping up to be a $2 billion presidential campaign. Schnur argued that the political impact of the storm will ultimately depend on Mr. Obama. 

"For voters who are in the path of the storm, there is nothing that any political candidate can ever say on the campaign trail that will have even a fraction of an impact on their lives as the storm itself," said Schnur. "So for all the speculation about early voting and ad buys and absentee ballots, the seminal question is how effective the president and his administration are seen in responding to this crisis."

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