U.S. President Barack Obama urged Americans to pay attention to local emergency broadcasts about Hurricane Sandy, warning Monday that ignoring evacuation orders over the massive storm pummeling the East Coast could bring "potentially fatal consequences."
'The election will take care of itself...Right now our number one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives' —President Barack Obama
"If you don't evacuate when you are asked to evacuate, you are putting first responders in danger," he told reporters Monday afternoon in the White House.
He advised Americans not to delay when given evacuation instructions because the storm will likely take emergency workers several days to clean up, transportation will be back-logged and multiple power outages are expected.
Election takes back seat to Sandy
Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney called off their campaign events at the height of the presidential race, with just over a week to go before Americans head to the polls. Early voting was cancelled Monday in Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Obama says he's not worried about the impact of the storm on his re-election chances.
"The election will take care of itself," he said. "Right now our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we are saving lives."
Obama cancelled his planned campaign events Monday and Tuesday to return to Washington where he plans to monitor the storm.
Romney 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."
'The entire country is watching this closely'
With little over 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."
Emergency funding is a campaign issue
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."
Campaigns shift to relief efforts
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."
Former president Bill 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."
'You guys need to carry the ball,' Obama says
The president made an unannounced stop at a campaign office Sunday night, where he told supporters the storm meant he wouldn't be able to campaign as much over the next few days.
"You guys need to carry the ball," he told the volunteers.
Polls suggest Obama has an advantage in reaching the required 270 Electoral College votes. But Romney's campaign is projecting momentum and considering trying to expand the playing field beyond the nine states that have garnered the bulk of the candidates' attention.
A senior Republican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to disclose private deliberations, said Romney's team was discussing sending the GOP nominee, Ryan or both to traditionally left-leaning Minnesota during the campaign's final week.
Obama promises to cut red tape
Obama was briefed Sunday on the government's response at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and spoke by phone to affected governors and mayors.
"Anything they need, we will be there," Obama said. "And we are going to cut through red tape. We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules. We want to make sure that we are anticipating and leaning forward."
Obama has declared emergencies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia, authorizing federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts.
Both campaigns used social media to urge supporters to donate to the Red Cross and said they would stop sending fundraising emails on Monday to people living in areas in the storm's path.
Romney staffers in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia were collecting storm-relief supplies at campaign offices to be delivered via one of Romney's campaign buses. In an email, Romney encouraged supporters in the storm's path to help neighbors get ready.
"For safety's sake, as you and your family prepare for the storm, please be sure to bring any yard signs inside," the email read. "In high winds they can be dangerous, and cause damage to homes and property."