Hillary Clinton’s campaign scrambled Thursday to quell charges that the Democratic presidential nominee was exploiting Hurricane Matthew for political gain, as they put on hold TV ads running on the Weather Channel that appeared timed to coincide with the storm hitting swing-state Florida.
Following sharp criticism from Republicans that the TV ads were opportunistic and insensitive to the destruction and suffering expected from the Category 4 hurricane, the Clinton campaign postponed the ads just as the five-day $63,000 ad buy began to air on the Weather Channel.
Clinton spokesman Jesse Ferguson downplayed the significance of the decision to wait until the storm passed.
“Earlier in the week we made changes to our TV ad reservations across hundreds of stations in several battleground states including Florida,” he said. “Less than 1 percent of those changes included the Weather Channel. We have requested that stations in Florida delay any of those ads on the Weather Channel until after the storm passes.”
The move, however, didn’t stop the criticism.
“Pulling these ads after getting caught won’t cut it. @HillaryClinton should apologize for using the storm for votes,” tweeted Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.
Before the ads were put on hold, Mr. Priebus tweeted: “Couldn’t let this crisis go to waste? Shameful @HillaryClinton’s campaign even considered exploiting Hurricane Matthew for political gain.”
Beyond the flap over TV ads, Hurricane Matthew likely will affect the race in Florida, a crucial battleground that often plays a leading role in picking the president. The storm is expected to disrupt lives and destroy property across the Sunshine State, potentially knocking out electricity for days if not weeks in some places.
The reaction and response from Mrs. Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump will be closely watched as a test of their presidential mettle.
They are virtually tied in Florida polls. Mrs. Clinton leads by 2.4 percent over Mr. Trump in the Real Clear Politics average of recent surveys in the state. The poll average included Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson at 5.2 percent and Green Party nominee Jill Stein at 2.2 percent.
Mr. Trump mostly stayed out of the way of the news coverage as the storm bore down on south Florida.
“Praying for everyone in Florida. Hoping the hurricane dissipates, but in any event, please be careful,” he tweeted.
Mr. Trump has a personal connection. His landmark Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, lies directly in the path of Hurricane Matthew, likely to be the most powerful storm to hit the U.S. Atlantic coast in more than a decade.
Mrs. Clinton sent a personal message of concern to Floridians.
“Hurricane #Matthew is a major storm. I urge everyone to follow emergency instructions and evacuate if you’re told to. Stay safe Florida,” she tweeted, signing the post “H” to indicate that she personally typed the message.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook blamed Mr. Priebus for playing politics with a natural disaster.
“It is unfortunate that Chairman Priebus is trying to politicize the hurricane,” he told reporters on a conference call convened to tout how early voting and expected high turnout at the polls favors Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Mook stressed that their top concern was for the safety and well-being of people caught in the path of Hurricane Matthew. But he also urged Florida to extend voter registration deadlines.
Voter registration drives have been a key component of Mrs. Clinton electoral strategy.
“The one thing we are hoping and expecting is that officials in Florida will adapt deadlines to account for the storm,” Mr. Mook said. “The voter registration deadline in Florida is Oct. 11 and our hope would be that a little bit more time would be given for people who were expecting to be able to get registered before the election.”