ORLANDO, Fla. — A strengthening Hurricane Sandy disrupted the campaign for the White House Monday, with President Obama rushing out of battleground Florida to get Air Force One safely back to Washington and monitor the storm.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney was campaigning in the Midwest Monday out of the storm's path, but called off events scheduled in Virginia Sunday and New Hampshire Tuesday. He told supporters in the storm's path to bring in their yard signs so they don't damage property.
Obama, mindful of his need to show command in crisis while in the final throes of a tough re-election campaign, met with federal emergency officials Sunday before flying to Florida that night ahead of a rally scheduled for Monday at noon. But the intensifying storm heading to the East Coast took priority, with the president signing emergency declarations for New England states in the middle of the night from his Orlando hotel room.
By dawn the White House decided to call off the politicking.
"Due to deteriorating weather conditions in the Washington area, the president will not attend today's campaign event in Orlando," spokesman Jay Carney said in a written statement. "The president will return to the White House to monitor the preparations for and early response to Hurricane Sandy."
About an hour after the statement went out, Obama slipped into his black armored limousine and his motorcade sped toward the airport under sunny Florida skies. The president jogged up the steps, and Air Force One quickly lifted off for the two-hour flight to Washington. Most of the White House press corps was left behind after the pilots of their separate chartered plane determined it was unsafe to follow Air Force One back.
Obama's aides considered moving the Orlando event even earlier Monday morning but were told that would put Air Force One back too late to land safely. Nearly all commercial flights had already been canceled in the Washington area as heavy rains soaked the capital ahead of Sandy's expected landfall Monday night.
With eight days before Election Day, neither campaign could afford to fully shut down its political activity in a race that remains tight. Four critical election states are affected by the storm — North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire — but there was still unthreatened ground to cover across the rest of the country.
While the impact of the storm had yet to be seen, at the very least it was a distraction as both sides were looking to make their final appeals. It threatened to dilute Romney's efforts to close the deal with voters while giving Obama a platform to show leadership in the time of crisis. And power outages could end up cutting off their message in television ads and automatic phone calls in the eastern swing states.
Romney was scheduled Monday to campaign in the perennial battlegrounds of Ohio and Iowa. He also was visiting Wisconsin, trying to force Obama to play defense in a state where the president has been leading in the polls despite the addition of native son Paul Ryan on the GOP ticket.
"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 people who will find themselves in harm's way," Romney told supporters in Ohio on Sunday.
Former President Bill Clinton still planned to appear before voters at the Orlando rally in Obama's absence. Later Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden were appearing together in Youngstown, Ohio. Biden was originally supposed to campaign in New Hampshire Monday, but diverted to Ohio to replace Obama after the president canceled his appearance to stick to Washington.
But the abrupt cancellation meant Obama's trip to Florida was essentially a waste. The campaign bumped up the rally by two hours and rescheduled his flight to Orlando from Monday morning to Sunday night to get ahead of the storm.
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