WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama departed the campaign trail on Monday, leaving Florida to Bill Clinton in order to head back to the U.S. capital as hurricane Sandy began its deadly assault on the most populous region in the country.
Obama left the Sunshine State to fly home as D.C. itself was feeling Sandy's wrath. Air Force One made a slightly rocky mid-morning landing at Andrews Air Force Base despite a series of dangerous squalls and increasingly powerful gusts assailing the capital region.
"This is going to be a big and powerful storm," Obama said.
"Because of the nature of this storm, we are certain this is going to be a slow-moving process through a wide swath of the country."
The president convened a meeting with his top advisers in the White House Situation Room soon after arriving back in the American capital. He also scrapped his Tuesday events in other critical swing states in order to help oversee the federal response to Sandy.
Appearing at an impromptu news conference at the White House after that meeting, Obama was asked about the hurricane's impact on the campaign.
"I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election," he said. "I'm worried about the impact on families, and I'm worried about our first responders."
Mitt Romney, Obama's Republican rival for the White House, also scrubbed his campaign events until at least Wednesday "out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in the path of hurricane Sandy," his campaign said in a statement.
"Gov. Romney believes this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harm's way."
With just a week until the Nov. 6 election, both men — especially Obama — are undoubtedly mindful of the dangers of appearing to be politicking during a potential national calamity, says one political observer.
"It's a no-brainer for the president," Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Monday.
"It's not just the people of the East Coast, but the entire country is watching this closely, and he must appear presidential. It's difficult for a president to manage a natural disaster well enough to get substantial credit, but it's entirely possible to manage it poorly enough to really get beat up by it."
For that reason, Romney too must tread carefully, Jillson added.
"If he turns too quickly on the administration for its response, that could backfire badly on him and he'll be accused, once again, of politicizing a developing crisis."
Romney in particular would be in a pickle if he opted to weigh in on the federal response to Sandy, given his remarks last year about federal funding for disaster relief.
During a primary season debate, Romney called such funding "immoral," suggesting he would abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He added that disaster relief should be a state responsibility, with state officials possibly hiring private contractors for disaster relief.
"One of the problems with being a small-government conservative — if that's what he actually is — is that when disaster strikes everyone wants help, they feel that they deserve it and that people in the rest of the country deserve it too; there's a 'there-but-for-the-grace-of-God' thing that kicks in," Jillson said.
"So when you're on record doing your small-government shtick and the disaster comes, that looks selfish and cold-hearted."
The Romney campaign denied Monday that Romney would do away with FEMA if elected, although it added states should be in the driver's seat in responding to natural disasters.
“Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions," Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesman, said in a statement.
"As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA."
Romney was expected to temper his criticism of Obama in the days to come and focus instead on encouraging his supporters to make donations to the Red Cross and other relief efforts.
Like Obama, he was also reaching out to big-city mayors and governors with offers to collect storm supplies at offices in North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
His campaign said it would load a bus with such supplies and send it to Virginia. He might also travel to New Jersey later this week to survey the damage with Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
In a message to supporters in the mid-Atlantic region, the Republican presidential hopeful urged people to take their yard signs indoors and to keep an eye on their elderly neighbours.
"I'm never prouder of America than when I see how we pull together in a crisis," he wrote in an email. "There's nothing that we can't handle when we stand together."
Clinton, meantime, didn't hesitate to compare the looming misery to a Romney administration.
"We're coming down to the 11th hour," he told a campaign rally in Orlando. "We're facing a violent storm. It's nothing compared to the storm we'll face if you don't make the right decision in this election."