Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast with a wallop starting Sunday night, tossing a new element of unpredictability into the presidential race with just nine days before the election.
President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney were forced to alter their campaign schedules, which had been carefully tailored to reach battleground state voters during the last full week of a race that has grown increasing close.
Obama had been in Orlando for a campaign event Monday morning, but flew back to Washington, D.C. to monitor the storm. His appearance at a Monday Youngstown, Ohio event was previously canceled. Former President Bill Clinton will headline the events instead, with Vice President Joe Biden joining him at the second stop. The president will also stay in Washington Tuesday to monitor the storm, scrubbing a planned appearance in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The president's campaign also canceled events in Virginia and Colorado scheduled for early this week in order to track the hurricane. Meanwhile, Romney scratched three events in Virginia on Sunday, but traveled to Ohio instead. The GOP nominee will hit the campaign train in Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin on Monday, but an event in New Hampshire Tuesday night had to be called off.
Overall, 18 events were canceled outright by both campaigns in addition to two other candidate appearances, according to ABC News.
The storm has caused Obama to focus more intently on his duties as commander in chief while still keeping his eye on the campaign. The president visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters on Sunday in order to receive an update on Sandy's progress and a briefing on response plans. He also participated in a conference call with mayors and governors from the East Coast.
"This is a serious and big storm," he said. "You need to take this seriously and take guidance from state and local officials."
Obama's schedule calls for campaign stops in Ohio on Wednesday. But all schedules remain contingent on the storm.
Meanwhile, the Romney campaign told ABC News that it would collect supplies at campaign offices in Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New Hampshire to distribute to storm-relief centers. Romney has also personally contacted Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie about disaster preparations.
The Obama and Romney campaigns stopped sending out fundraising e-mails to supporters in mid-Atlantic states effected by the storm, from North Carolina to New Jersey. And Romney's campaign urged supporters in an e-mail that they should remove yard signs from their property so that they don't turn into projectiles, as did Virginia Senate candidate Tim Kaine (D).
"I know that right now some people in the country are a little nervous about a storm about to hit the coast. And our thoughts and prayers are with the people who will find themselves in harm's way," Romney said at an Ohio event Sunday evening.
Though both candidates have struck a nonpartisan tone, Obama supporters questioned Sunday whether Romney would be equipped to handle a storm like Sandy as president. They dredged up Romney's statement at a GOP primary debate this spring that the states should take on much more responsibility for disaster relief from FEMA.
"Absolutely. 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," Romney said. "And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?"
"Gov. Romney wants to ensure states, who are the first responders and are in the best position to aid impacted individuals and communities, have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters," a Romney campaign official told the Huffington Post in response.
Despite that, it's difficult to speculate what kind of effect Sandy will have on the outcome of the race but it's clear both campaigns see it as a so-called "October surprise" that could change the dynamic of the race.
Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said on CNN Sunday that access to the polls in a swing state like Virginia remains "a source of concern." Virginia has expanded in-person absentee voting to people affected by the storms.
"I don't know how all the politics will sort out. It depends on how scenarios are impacted and so the best thing we can do is focus on how we can help people during this storm and hope that it all clears out and that by the next weekend we'll be free of it and people can focus on the election," Axelrod said.
Most battleground states, save for Virginia and New Hampshire, are outside the path of the storm. But both those states are of critical importance to both campaigns and it is unclear if or when the candidates will be able to appear there before Election Day. It is safe to say, however, that as national media attention has rapidly shifted from the campaign horse race to the storm, and how each candidate responds to it will be closely scrutinized.
With both candidates' leadership qualities will undoubtedly be under the microscope, the campaigns refused to speculate on whether the storm would benefit one candidate or the other.
For example, Romney adviser Kevin Madden refused to comment on whether the storm would make Obama look more "presidential" to voters and on if the storm would negatively effect the campaigns plans.
"We just try to have focus on what we can control and part of what we can control is making sure that safety is a priority for the people that are in harm's way in some of these states that are going to be directly impacted and so that's top concern and it'll remain a top concern," he said Sunday.