Although Hurricane Sandy blew President Obama's re-election campaign far off its charted course, Mr. Obama still had the advantage over Republican rival Mitt Romney on Tuesday, embracing the presidential role of coordinating emergency relief efforts across the Eastern seaboard.
Seated in the White House Situation Room, Mr. Obama convened a video teleconference with Cabinet members and other federal officials to direct the government’s response to the storm. Intentionally or not, the president even managed to work in his campaign’s slogan in the midst of the ostensibly apolitical gathering.
"The president made clear that he expects his team to remain focused as the immediate impacts of Hurricane Sandy continue and lean forward in their response," the White House said in a statement about the teleconference. “Forward” is the slogan of his re-election campaign; "Lean forward" is the motto of MSNBC, the liberal cable news network.
Both candidates suspended campaigning in person Tuesday, leaving that job to surrogates and aides. Mr. Obama also canceled campaign stops that were scheduled for Ohio on Wednesday.
But with only one week remaining to make his case to voters, Mr. Romney couldn’t afford to surrender the spotlight completely to the president. Instead, the Republican challenger held a hastily rebranded "storm-relief event" near Dayton to raise donations to the Red Cross for storm victims. He spoke on a stage draped with a huge American flag as volunteers stacked nonperishable goods nearby.
"We won’t be able to solve all of the problems with our efforts this morning," Mr. Romney said. "One of the things I’ve learned in life is you make the difference you can."
He told the crowd he had been in touch with governors from the states hit by the storm, and that the goods donated Tuesday would be distributed to New Jersey.
Praise from Christie
But the Republican governor of that hardest-hit state, Chris Christie, gave what amounted to a very public boost for Mr. Obama in the wake of the storm. He heaped praise on Mr. Obama for working to help states battered by the hurricane, saying the president "deserves great credit."
"He gave me his number at the White House and told me to call him if I needed anything," the blunt-talking Mr. Christie said on Fox News. "I spoke to the president three times [Monday]. He called me for the last time at midnight last night asking what he could do. I said, if you can expedite designating New Jersey as a major disaster area that that would help us to get federal money and resources in here as quickly as possible to help clean up the damage here."
Mr. Obama did sign such a disaster declaration, as he did for several other states.
"The president was great," Mr. Christie said. "He said he would get it done. At 2 a.m., I got a call from FEMA to answer a couple of final questions and then he signed the declaration [Tuesday] morning. ... He’s done — as far as I’m concerned — a great job for New Jersey."
Asked if Mr. Romney might come to New Jersey to tour the damage with him, a weary Mr. Christie replied, "I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested. I've got a job to do here in New Jersey that's much bigger than presidential politics and I could care less about any of that stuff."
Hours later, the White House announced that Mr. Obama would visit New Jersey on Wednesday afternoon to tour affected areas with Mr. Christie.
The president on Tuesday also held a conference call with the governors of 12 affected states, from North Carolina to New Hampshire, and the mayors of seven cities, from the District to New York. Mr. Obama pledged to help utilities restore electricity and later visited a local Red Cross office and told workers there, "America is with you."
After the Bush administration took a beating for mishandling Hurricane Katrina, politicians are acutely aware of the danger of doing anything that could be perceived as political when reacting to a natural disaster. Mr. Obama ended up canceling a planned Monday rally in Florida, as well as other events scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, and flew back to Washington as he tried to show he was putting the needs of storm victims first.
The political cease-fire, however, did not extend to Mr. Obama’s aides, who took plenty of shots at Mr. Romney during a conference call with reporters.
"We're obviously going to lose a bunch of campaign time but that's as it has to be," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama’s campaign. "For us, it’s not a matter of optics, it’s a matter of responsibility, and Gov. Romney can decide for himself what he wants to do. The president has real responsibilities, and those responsibilities come first."
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