Superstorm Sandy disrupted the US presidential race as President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney both cancelled campaign events.
Seven days before the election, both men and their running mates tempered their campaigns for today, eager not to appear out of sync with more immediate worries over flooding, power outages, economic calamity and personal safety.
Neither Mr Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden planned to campaign today. Mr Romney was going ahead with a planned event in Ohio, but his campaign said its focus would be storm relief.
Millions were left without power as the deadly storm whipped its way through presidential battlegrounds like North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire and sprawled as far as the Great Lakes, where gales threatened Ohio’s and Wisconsin’s lakeside regions.
Mr Obama shifted promptly from campaign mode to governing, abandoning a Florida event with former president Bill Clinton to return to Washington.
Displaying authority like only an incumbent can, he received a briefing from his top emergency advisers, his second in so many days. He then addressed reporters at the White House, insisting that the public follow the directives of their local officials and warning that recovery from the giant storm would not be swift.
Mr Obama voiced concern over the storm’s effect on the economy, and the disruptions in New York’s Wall Street region were bound to be among those that preoccupied the administration today.
Storm damage was projected at $10bn to $20bn, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in US history.
Unwilling to cede the mantle of leadership to Mr Obama, Mr Romney spoke by phone to deputy Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Richard Serino and officials from the Homeland Security Department and the National Weather Service.
Addressing supporters in Davenport, Iowa, he warned, like Mr Obama, that the damage would likely be significant and that power outages would be long-lasting.
In the competition for attention, Mr Obama held the edge, however. “This is going to be a big storm,” he warned, as cable television broke off to carry his message live. “It’s going to be a difficult storm. The great thing about America is when we go through tough times like this we all pull together.”
Such is the advantage of incumbency, provided things do not go wrong. The potential for debacle was clearly on the minds of White House officials as the storm made its furious landfall in New Jersey yesterday evening and pounced on New York.
But as President, Mr Obama is overseeing the federal government’s preparations for the superstorm, and could bear the responsibility for any miscalculations in the government response.
Obama advisers say they have learned the lessons from President George W Bush’s widely criticised response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr Bush was seen as ineffective and out of touch, and his presidency never recovered.
While eschewing actual campaigning, Mr Romney, his wife, Ann, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, all planned to attend storm relief events today. Mr Romney was scheduled to be in Ohio, his wife in Wisconsin and Iowa, and Mr Ryan in Wisconsin – all of them battleground states.
Aides said Mr Romney might visit with storm victims later in the week, much as he did when Hurricane Isaac raked the Gulf Coast during the week of the Republican National Convention.
With the race in its final full week, most national polls showed the two presidential rivals separated by a statistically insignificant point or two, although some said Mr Romney had a narrow lead for the overall popular vote.
But the election will be won or lost in the nine most competitive states that are not reliably Republican or Democratic. Republicans claimed momentum in these states, but the President’s high command projected confidence. And Mr Romney’s increasingly narrow focus on Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio suggested he is still searching for a breakthrough in the Midwest to deny Mr Obama the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
The US president is not chosen by the nationwide popular vote, but in state-by-state contests that allocate electoral votes. Each state gets one electoral vote for each of its seats in the House of Representatives, as determined by population, and two electoral votes for each of its two senators.
That means there are 538 electoral votes, including three for Washington, DC. The winning candidate must have 50%, plus one, or 270 votes.
Mr Obama is ahead in states and Washington DC, representing 237 electoral votes; Mr Romney has a comfortable lead in states with 191 electoral votes.
Mr Obama’s team had planned to kick off the final full week of campaigning with a trio of joint rallies with Mr Clinton. The two presidents were supposed to spend yesterday dashing from Florida to Ohio to Virginia rallying Democratic supporters and trying to sway the small swath of undecided voters.
With Mr Obama at the White House at until today, Mr Clinton campaigned solo in Florida, then joined Vice President Joe Biden in Ohio. Mr Obama’s campaign has booked Mr Clinton into Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire and Wisconsin for the race’s final days.
Aides at Mr Romney’s campaign headquarters in Boston were scrambling to sketch out political contingency plans. In addition to postponing events, they planned to scale back criticism of Mr Obama to avoid the perception that Mr Romney was putting politics ahead of public safety.