10/30/2012 05:02 EDT | Updated 12/30/2012 05:12 EST

Is Obama winning perception game after hurricane Sandy devastates East Coast?

WASHINGTON - The United States — and the presidential campaigns — awoke Tuesday to scenes of mass destruction after a ferocious hurricane killed dozens of people, left 7.5 million Americans without power, swamped lower Manhattan and all but swallowed up some beloved seaside communities.

President Barack Obama suspended campaigning for the third day running on Tuesday, remaining in the U.S. capital to oversee the federal response to the disaster.

The White House announced Obama wouldn't campaign on Wednesday, either, but would instead travel to New Jersey to survey the devastation with Gov. Chris Christie, a top Mitt Romney surrogate who nonetheless heaped praise upon the president earlier in the day.

Obama had a message to those picking up the pieces in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy: "America is with you," the president said as he visited the Red Cross headquarters in Washington.

"This is something that is heartbreaking for the entire nation."

Romney, meantime — after saying a day earlier he was suspending his campaign to focus on helping the victims in hurricane Sandy's path — was nonetheless back on the trail the day after the storm wreaked its worst havoc.

His campaign insisted Romney was making appearance for "relief" events only. But with just a week until the presidential election, he held an event in a critical swing state that wasn't particularly punished by Sandy — Ohio.

The Republican presidential hopeful was dogged with questions from the reporters covering his campaign about whether he'd abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which he suggested he'd do during a primary season debate last year.

He repeatedly ignored the questions in the Ohio town of Kettering following an appearance that had many of the outward signs of a campaign event. Supporters were asked to bring non-perishable food and supplies for Sandy victims.

The Republican presidential hopeful spoke briefly, focused on the storm and didn't criticize Obama, but his biographical video played on the TV screens and the event was billed to the media as a "victory rally."

And his campaign's request for supporters to bring goods was subject to criticism, since the Red Cross and other private charities don't accept donated goods, preferring cash that can be spent where it's most needed.

"Due to logistical constraints, the Red Cross does not accept or solicit individual donations or collections of items," the Red Cross says on its website.

"Items such as collected food, used clothing and shoes must be sorted, cleaned, repackaged and transported which impedes the valuable resources of money, time, and personnel."

Romney's remarks also raised eyebrows when he likened disaster relief to a high-school cleanup effort. He recalled how he and friends once tidied up a football field strewn with "rubbish and paper products" — an apparent nod to the role private citizens and charities play in relief efforts, not government.

The Romney campaign's struggles to set precisely the right tone in Sandy's aftermath underscores the challenges for both Obama and Romney in a critical moment of their neck-and-neck race to the White House.

With Americans watching closely, political experts say Obama must appear presidential, authoritative, non-political and in command of the relief efforts. Romney, on the other hand, has to temper his criticism of the president, avoid the appearance he's trying to score political points and ease up on high-profile campaigning.

Hours after the worst of Sandy had lurched through much of the mid-Atlantic region, Obama appeared to be winning the perception game.

"Obama has more of an opportunity here than Romney, simply because he's the president and he can order FEMA around, he can issue executive orders," William Benoit, a professor of communications studies at Ohio University, said Tuesday.

"Romney isn't even a sitting governor, so there's really nothing he can do. He's in a tough spot here — in such a tight race, how does he just sit on the sidelines and say nothing? But at the same time, he has to be careful not to look as though he doesn't care and it's politics as usual."

Despite insisting campaign events would be cancelled on Tuesday, the Romney campaign apparently had a change of heart overnight.

By Tuesday morning, it released a new schedule for Romney, Ann Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, that featured a slew of events in swing states — only some of them with a supposed focus on the hurricane.

Ryan and Ann Romney, in fact, were making explicitly campaign-related appearances in critical battleground states far from the East Coast.

The president, meantime, signed emergency declarations on Tuesday and convened a video-teleconference in the White House's Situation Room to get updates on relief efforts from emergency officials.

"I've never seen a guy so focused," Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday in Virginia.

"The last conversation we had, he said to the governors: 'Look, folks. I'm up late at night. If you don't get immediate response from my folks, call me. Here's my number.' So this is a hands-on deal right now to get everything done."

Biden wasn't the only one singing his boss's praises. The Romney campaign almost certainly blanched when they heard Christie, the keynote speaker at the Republican national convention this summer, commending Obama.

"The federal government response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president personally," he said on the "Today" show. "The president has been outstanding in this."

Christie was also dismissive of any talk of a visit to his hard-hit state from Romney to survey the damage. Atlantic City, among other popular New Jersey shore destinations, was almost entirely submerged when Sandy began to roar ashore on Monday.

"I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested," he tersely told Fox News.

"I've got a job to do here in New Jersey that's much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff."

The Obama campaign was hardly above politics on Tuesday, still dispatching surrogates to battleground states. Former president Bill Clinton campaigned in Colorado and Biden made appearances in Virginia on Tuesday; he was headed to Florida on Wednesday.

And even though Obama himself might steer clear of politicizing the tragedy, Benoit predicted his campaign won't hesitate to assail Romney for his past remarks about federal disaster relief in the few remaining days until next Tuesday's election.

"Obama has to be careful to appear presidential, but he has plenty of surrogates, and the ad war goes on," Benoit said. "Certainly you can expect to see ads that dredge up past statements and Romney's record on disaster relief."