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Sandy muffles US campaign a week from election day

india Updated: Oct 30, 2012 22:30 IST

AFP
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Superstorm Sandy muffled vitriolic campaigning a week from the US election, as President Barack Obama managed the aftermath on Tuesday and Mitt Romney faced a post-disaster political minefield.

Obama stayed in the White House, acting as a leader in the eye of crisis, wielding control of an emergency federal government operation through the night as murderous winds and floods swamped New York and New Jersey.

Republican nominee Romney, left with few options with his antagonist off the trail, also put campaigning on hold, but tried to show compassion by holding what his campaign billed as a "storm relief" event in swing state Ohio.

Campaign teams were meanwhile left calculating the ramifications of the storm, which effectively froze the race in place by muting the main protagonists and consuming news coverage a week from election day.

Obama made the first move, announcing he had cancelled another day of campaign events, in Ohio on Wednesday, so he could stay at the White House to support recovery efforts on the northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

That left Romney with a choice between resuming full bore campaigning and risking being seen as politically off key, or also staying quiet and damaging his momentum as Obama grabs headlines by simply doing his job.

Early political reverberations were already being felt and the storm scrambled normal political battle lines as Obama dealt with key Republican governors, several of whom are strong public supporters of Romney.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a blunt spoken Obama critic, said his dealings with the administration had been "wonderful" and poured such praise on Obama that he may have irked his allies in Romney's camp.

"The president's been great... I spoke to him three times yesterday, he called me for the last time at midnight last night, he asked me what I needed," Christie, said, adding that Obama had cut through bureaucratic "mumbo jumbo."

"The president has been all over this, he deserves great credit ... He gave me his number at the White House, told me to call if I needed anything, and he absolutely means it," Christie told MSNBC.

The praise from Christie, a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate should Romney lose, represented the kind of publicity a campaign, for all its hundreds of millions of dollars, cannot buy.

It may have help boost Obama's favorable ratings at a crucial time, as voters see him projecting competence and authority as people turn to the government for help.

But with both campaigns believing that there are few undecided voters left, and with partisans dug in deep, it was unclear whether the storm would have a significant impact on the close November 6 election.

Obama stayed out of sight early Tuesday, relying on his press secretary to reveal details of a top-level video-conference with officials responsible for managing the federal response to the disaster.

Romney faced a test of tone in his event in Ohio, which will be seen as a chance to inject himself into news coverage still dominated by the storm.

He has already been accused of muscling in on tragedy for political gain -- over the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last month -- and so can ill afford any missteps seen as motivated by hope of an electoral dividend.

Equally, Obama knew ahead of the storm that any errors could help Romney build his case that Benghazi was a symptom of a wider malaise and unraveling of leadership in the White House.

The massive relief operation swinging into action on the northeast coast could also pose tough questions for Romney.

The New York Times and Washington Post were already highlighting on Tuesday how Romney had suggested in a Republican candidates debate last year that a big government agency was not the best way to handle disaster relief.

"Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction and if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better," he said.

Romney's campaign has since said that he would not abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which is handling the central government's coordination of the storm effort with states.

The New York Times, which has backed Obama editorially, called Romney's notion "absurd" and asked "does Mr Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency?"

FEMA was vilified in the United States following the botched handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 by then president George W Bush, but the agency has since been overhauled by Obama and has run smoothly in subsequent emergencies.

Election events did take place at a lower level Tuesday.

Romney's wife Ann was appearing at events and gathering storm donations in Iowa while his running mate Paul Ryan was following suit in his native Wisconsin.

Former president Bill Clinton was in Colorado and Minnesota stumping for Obama as part of a tour of key electoral territory, and early voting was continuing in states unaffected by the storm.

Romney leads by a few points in some national polls of the popular vote, but Obama is clinging to a slim advantage in the state-by-state race to 270 electoral votes needed to secure the White House.