ORLANDO, Fla. — Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on presidential politicking Monday, with President Obama traveling to Florida on Sunday night only to scrap a rally there and head straight back to Washington in the morning, and Republican Mitt Romney calling off campaign events indefinitely.
Mr. Obama was the first to jump off the campaign trail, rushing out of the battleground state of Florida to get back to Washington to monitor preparations and take command of federal efforts in the face of the storm.
Soon after, Mr. Romney and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan canceled their Monday night and Tuesday campaign events, saying they didn’t want to detract from preparations — though Mr. Romney did finish out two afternoon events in Ohio and Iowa, where the campaign said the doors had already opened to let in supporters.
Instead of campaigning, Mr. Romney will devote Tuesday to Sandy relief efforts at an event scheduled for Kettering, Ohio, which is near Dayton.
“The most important message I have now is, please listen to what your state and local officials are saying,” Mr. Obama said at the White House, where he took to the lectern in the press briefing room to make clear he was focusing on the storm, not politics. “When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate. Don’t question the instructions … . It could potentially have fatal consequences, if people don’t act.”
The White House defended Mr. Obama’s decision to fly to Florida on Sunday night in anticipation of a Monday rally, even as businesses, schools and subway systems along the mid-Atlantic were already canceling their operations for Monday.
Mr. Obama was on the ground for little more than 12 hours before turning around and flying back, having shelved his events and making just one unscheduled stop, at a campaign headquarters, where he delivered pizza to volunteers.
Peppered with questions about the decision-making, the White House on Monday said the storm had picked up speed and intensity overnight, leaving them no choice but to return to Washington early if Mr. Obama wanted to get back at all.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling on Air Force One that Mr. Obama’s presence in Washington was needed during this time.
“It’s essential, in his view, that he be in Washington, one of the areas that will be affected and where his team is, to oversee that effort and to be updated on it,” Mr. Carney said.
Both campaigns had already rewritten their schedules as Sandy bore down on the East Coast. Late last week, Mr. Romney canceled a Virginia stop set for Sunday, and first lady Michelle Obama canceled a New Hampshire stop slated for Tuesday, while Mr. Obama has scrapped stops in Youngstown, Ohio, and Sterling, Va.
But Mr. Romney went ahead with the Ohio and Iowa events, where he urged supporters to keep those in the storm’s path in their thoughts.
“This hurricane’s going to cause a lot of damage across this country and hurt a lot of families — and there are families in harm’s way that are going to be hurt either in their possessions or perhaps in something more severe,” he said in Avon Lake, Ohio. “So, I’d like to ask you who are here today to think about making a contribution to the Red Cross or to another relief agency, to be of help if you possibly can in any way you can imagine, and help those that are in harm’s way.”
On the Democratic side, Mrs. Obama kept her own campaign schedule in Iowa, while former President Bill Clinton picked up the slack by campaigning in Florida in Mr. Obama’s stead. Later he met up with Vice President Joseph R. Biden in western Pennsylvania.
But by Monday afternoon the campaign said Mr. Biden’s Tuesday events in Pennsylvania and Ohio would also be canceled so local emergency and law enforcement personnel could focus on the storm.
In Orlando, Fla., the crowd of 7,600, perhaps less than the Obama campaign had hoped for when it was planning the joint-appearance of two presidents, didn’t appear disappointed. Under a sunny, clear sky, Mr. Clinton spoke for 33 minutes, warning that Mr. Romney would take the country back in time when it comes to problems ranging from climate change to higher education costs.
During his own appearance in Avon Lake, Mr. Romney accused Mr. Obama of being out of touch with those suffering in a bad economy by continuing to insist the nation is on the right track.
• Seth McLaughlin, traveling with the Romney campaign, contributed to this report.