AVON LAKE, Ohio—With just eight days to go before Election Day, President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney face what could be the worst scenario for an October surprise: a potentially life-threatening storm.
The superstorm, picking up speed and force–and expected to hit the swing states of New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virgina–is disrupting their campaigns at a time polls have many battleground states in a dead heat. It is sure to impact a number of politically-related events, from campaign appearances and fundraising to advertising and media coverage.
For Romney, it could dent his building momentum. Crowds have never been bigger—29,000 at three rallies in Florida on Saturday and another 10,000 during a bus tour of rural Ohio on Sunday.
The storm is proving to be as equally disruptive to both candidates. On Sunday, Romney was forced to reschedule a day of campaigning in Virginia—including three stops in the state’s biggest media markets. (It’s also feared that power will go out in Virginia, which would obviously effect TV and radio adds.) And the campaign postponed a rally in New Hampshire scheduled for Tuesday amid worries Romney wouldn’t be able to fly back to the East Coast.
On Monday morning, the Romney campaign announced he would cancel a rally Monday night in Milwaukee, Wis., and all of his events on Tuesday, including rallies in Ohio and Iowa. His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, is also clearing his schedule.
“Gov. 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,” Gail Gitcho, Romney’s communications director, said in a statement to reporters.
Even the candidate’s Boston headquarters could be impacted by outer bands of the storm, which is now moving toward the Midwest and another state Romney desperately needs to win on Election Day: Ohio.
Obama had been scheduled to campaign with former President Bill Clinton in Florida and Ohio Monday. Over the weekend, Obama cancelled his trip to Ohio–sending Vice President Joe Biden in his place–and flew out of Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla., early to beat the storm. But on Monday, Obama scrapped that event, too–and headed back to D.C.
The president’s decision to scrap his Orlando rally brought the total number of cancelled or rescheduled events between the Romney and Obama campaigns to nearly 20. That includes rallies and events held by campaign surrogates like Ann Romney, who cancelled a planned swing through New Hampshire and instead flew to Michigan, and Biden, who cancelled his own swing through the Granite State and instead traveled to Ohio.
Publicly, Romney aides insist they aren’t focusing on the political impact of the hurricane. “It doesn’t make sense to handicap how a storm impacts the campaign when, first, the safety and security of the people in areas potentially affected by the storm is paramount,” Kevin Madden, a Romney senior adviser, told Yahoo News.
The Romney campaign also announced it was collecting food and other supplies at its offices in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which would later be transported on the Romney campaign bus to those in need.
While the campaign additionally said it would suspend its fundraising emails to states affected by the storm, the campaign continued to focus on its “get out the vote” operations in key states, especially Ohio.
But the biggest test for Romney could be his message: Does he continue to hammer Obama at a time when the country is more focused on the impact of a historically significant storm?
At Monday morning rally at Avon Lake High School, Romney stuck with his usual stump speech, pointing out the differences between Obama’s record and the policies he would pursue, if elected. But he struck a more somber tone, dropping several of his usual attack lines against Obama–including one where he usually accuses Obama of being focused on “Sesame Street characters” instead of tackling the nation’s challenges.
Speaking to an overflow crowd, Romney urged supporters to make donations to the American Red Cross ahead of the storm.
“Our hearts and prayers are with all the people in the storm’s path. Sandy is another devastating hurricane by all accounts, and a lot of people are going to be facing some real tough times as a result of Sandy’s fury,” Romney said. “There will be a lot of people that are going to be looking for help, and the people in Ohio have big hearts, so we’re expecting you to follow through and help out.”
Romney is set to travel to Iowa Monday afternoon. Aides said they were unclear where he will spend the night Monday or travel Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Obama has canceled his visit to Wisconsin on Tuesday, and his travel schedule is in flux for the rest of the week.
Olivier Knox contributed to this report from Orlando, Florida.