CELINA, Ohio — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama frantically sought to close the deal with voters with precious few days left in an incredibly close race as this year’s October surprise — an unprecedented storm menacing the East Coast — wreaked havoc on their best laid plans.
Ever mindful of his narrow path to the requisite 270 electoral votes, Romney looked to expand his map, weighing an intensified effort in traditionally left-leaning Minnesota. Obama sought to defend historically Democratic turf as the race tightened heading into the final week.
Wary of being seen as putting their political pursuits ahead of public safety, the two White House hopefuls reshuffled their campaign plans as the storm approached. Both candidates were loath to forfeit face time with voters in battleground states like Virginia, which is likely to be afflicted when Hurricane Sandy, a winter storm and a cold front collide to form a freak hybrid storm.
“The storm will throw havoc into the race,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., noting that a Monday rally in his state with Obama and former President Bill Clinton has already been canceled.
Obama, preparing to depart for Florida a day early to beat the storm, followed up a morning church service with his daughters with a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters, where the president was briefed before speaking by phone to governors and mayors in affected states.
Hours before rainfall was expected to begin, Obama declared a state of emergency in Maryland, freeing up federal funds to aid local response efforts.
“Anything they need, we will be there,” Obama said. “And we are going to cut through red tape. We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules. We want to make sure that we are anticipating and leaning forward into making sure that we’ve got the best possible response to what is going to be a big and messy system.”
An opportunity for Obama to demonstrate steady leadership in the face of a crisis was offset by the risk that the federal government, as in past emergencies, could be faulted for an ineffective response, with the president left to take the fall.
Obama canceled campaign stops Monday in Virginia and Tuesday in Colorado to monitor the storm but planned to go forward with other events Monday in Florida and Ohio, with Clinton at his side. He planned to return to Ohio on Wednesday with stops in Cincinnati and Akron, followed by a Thursday swing through Springfield, Ohio; Boulder, Colo.; and Las Vegas.
Romney nixed three stops in up-for-grabs Virginia on Sunday, opting instead to campaign with running mate Paul Ryan in Ohio before heading Monday to Wisconsin, where the former Massachusetts governor has chipped away at Obama’s lead.
“Let’s today when we get home put in our prayers the people who are in the East Coast in the wake of this big storm that’s coming,” Ryan said in Celina, Ohio.
As Ryan discussed the approaching end of the race, the crowd erupted with chants of “nine more days.”
Also vexing to Obama and Romney was the prospect that bad weather could hinder early voting and get-out-the-vote efforts, key components for both campaigns in the waning days of the campaign.
“Obviously, we want unfettered access to the polls, because we think the more people that come out, the better we’re going to do,” said David Axelrod, a top adviser to Obama’s campaign. “To the extent that it makes it harder, that’s a source of concern.”
Boarding Romney’s campaign bus in Dayton, Ohio, Sen. Rob Portman hedged when asked whether the storm could affect turnout in his hotly contested state: “We’ll see. On early voting, it might.”
Signs of the storm’s enormity were quickly mounting. New York City prepared to shut down its mass transit system and ordered some residents to evacuate, while governors from North Carolina to Connecticut declared states of emergency. Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights in anticipation of the hurricane, which has already killed more than 60 people in the Caribbean.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, whose state is among the most competitive in the race, said intensive contingency plans would prevent the storm from undermining voters’ ability to cast their ballots.
“We’ve got about 2,000 additional people that are coming into Virginia to help our power suppliers,” said McDonnell, a top Romney ally. “The state board of elections is already planning for extended hours in advance for absentee voting, and it’s now a priority, moved up to the same level as hospitals and police stations to have power restored.”
Getting voters to the polls — whether early or on Election Day — is one of the few elements of the race still in the candidates’ control with little more than a week left in the race. Although Romney and Obama are in a close contest for the popular vote, the president continues to have the upper hand in the handful of contested states where the victor will be decided. An Associated Press analysis shows Romney has fewer routes than Obama to reach the 270 electoral votes he needs to oust the incumbent, although the Republican has pulled even, or is slightly ahead, in a few pivotal states like Virginia and Florida.
With time running out, both campaigns appeared to be fine-tuning their map of the states where they’re campaigning the hardest.
A senior Republican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to disclose private deliberations, said Sunday that the Romney team was seriously discussing sending Romney, Ryan or both to Minnesota during the final week. The state hasn’t gone Republican in the presidential race since 1972, but recent polling shows a tighter race there than most anticipated. Both campaigns are buying TV time in the state, but neither has dispatched a member of the ticket for a public event since Vice President Joe Biden visited in August.
In a flashback to the 2008 race, Obama’s campaign announced that Biden will campaign Thursday in Pennsylvania, reprising a visit to his hometown of Scranton that he made during the final week four years ago. Pennsylvania too has been Democratic territory in recent years, but Romney has continued to contest the state, with an advertising assist from the Republican Party.
Eager to show energy and momentum on their side, both teams took to the Sunday talk shows to quibble over which candidate is faring better in state-level efforts to get supporters to the polls.
“Our people are coming out,” said Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager. “Ohio, Florida, the first day of early voting in Florida yesterday — record numbers of people are coming out to vote. It’s something like we’ve never, ever seen. And that’s a sign.”
Reince Priebus, the GOP chairman, pointed to recent gains for Romney that have lifted him to a virtual tie in most national polls. “The challenger always wins in a tie race,” he said.
Axelrod, Priebus and McDonnell spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Warner spoke on “Fox News Sunday” and Cutter on ABC’s “This Week.”