White House rivals put campaign on hold as nation takes a beating

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Superstorm Sandy laid waste to the campaign strategies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney with just a week remaining in their intensely close race for the White House.

Mr Obama cancelled a third straight day of campaigning, calling off appearances in Ohio, the most important of the battleground states. He will remain in Washington to monitor the storm and the federal response.

Mr Obama had already cancelled earlier events to manage the vast emergency, declaring a major disaster in New York and Long Island, making federal funding available to residents of those areas.

Mr Romney and running mate Paul Ryan initially announced they were cancelling events out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in Sandy’s path. But Mr Romney went forward with a planned event in Ohio, although it focused on storm relief. Mr Ryan cancelled three Colorado appearances.

Both candidates sought to avoid the appearance of putting politics above Americans’ more immediate worries over flooding, power cuts, economic calamity and personal safety.

With the outcome of the November 6 election likely to be decided by the thinnest of margins, the storm will dominate news coverage and distract many millions of voters in the critical few days left for the candidates to win over those who remain undecided.

In Ohio, Mr Romney said Americans have “heavy hearts” because of suffering along the East Coast. He collected bags of relief goods from supporters and did not mention Mr Obama in his brief remarks.

Mr Obama had shifted promptly from campaign mode to governing on Monday, abandoning a Florida event with former president Bill Clinton to return to Washington where received a briefing from his top emergency advisers. He then addressed reporters at the White House, insisting the public follow the directives of their local officials and warning recovery from the giant storm would not be swift.

Unwilling to cede the mantle of leadership to Mr Obama, Mr Romney had spoke by phone to deputy Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Richard Serino and officials from the Homeland Security Department and the National Weather Service.

But as President, it is Mr Obama who is overseeing the federal government’s preparations for the superstorm, and he could bear the responsibility for any miscalculations in the government response. Obama advisers say they have learned the lessons from President George W Bush’s widely criticised response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr Bush was seen as ineffective and out of touch, and his presidency never recovered.

Most national polls showed Mr Obama and Mr Romney separated by a statistically insignificant point or two.

The election will be won or lost in the nine most competitive states that are not reliably Republican or Democratic. Republicans claimed momentum in those states, but the President’s campaign projected confidence.

Mr Romney’s increasingly narrow focus on Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio suggested he still searched for a breakthrough in the Midwest to deny Mr Obama the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

The President is not chosen by the nationwide popular vote, but in state-by-state contests that allocate electoral votes. Mr Obama is ahead in states and Washington, DC, representing 237 electoral votes; Mr Romney has a comfortable lead in states with 191 electoral votes.