WASHINGTON — Superstorm Sandy forced the presidential race into a unpredictable spin Monday as rain and high winds pummeled the East Coast, causing both campaigns to cancel events with a week left in a battle that remains bitterly close.
President Barack Obama skipped a rally with Bill Clinton in Orlando on Monday and an event in Wisconsin today, flying back to Washington, D.C., for briefings with emergency officials as images of flooding and violent ocean waves began to fill TV screens.
Mitt Romney kept campaign events in Ohio and Iowa but called off plans to campaign Monday night in Wisconsin and canceled events today in Ohio, "out of sensitivity" for the millions of Americans in the path of the storm, which began Monday as a hurricane.
The campaign has been intensely close for weeks, each side feeling bursts of momentum only to be dragged back into a dead heat, and the storm injected a powerful sense of unease and limbo.
Already Monday questions were being raised about Election Day being postponed and whether Obama had authority to do so.
"I don't know the answer to that question," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One. "I think you're getting way ahead of yourself here."
Early voting was canceled in some parts of North Carolina over the weekend and Monday in Washington, D.C., and Maryland — two states firmly in Obama's control. But there was potential for massive power outages in neighboring Virginia, a crucial battleground. Early voting is more limited in Virginia, but the concern is power outages could persist through Election Day.
The suspensions by the campaigns reflect a delicate balance between responding to a major catastrophe while meeting the needs of a neck-and-neck race. Neither wanted to risk the appearance of politicking while people were in danger.
"The election will take care of itself next week," Obama said at the White House.
A spokeswoman said, "Governor 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."
Yet neither side could afford to let up completely.
Obama released an attack ad in Ohio saying Romney lied about Jeep manufacturing jobs being moved to China. Romney's campaign issued a memo declaring that Obama's "daydream" had been replaced by the "nightmare of Romney momentum." Romney intended to use the week to lay out more specifics of his agenda, a closing argument now waiting out a storm.
The campaigns were knocked off kilter several days ago when Sandy's potential became clearer. Obama's planned rally in Orlando was moved up and he arrived Sunday night, delivering pizza to campaign workers.
By then he had already canceled events in Virginia and Ohio so he could return to the White House. But early Monday, he decided to leave Orlando and Clinton held the rally himself.
"Keep your fingers crossed for your fellow Americans today," the former president said.
As Air Force One was in the air, the White House said Obama would not go to Green Bay, Wis., today. The campaign said it would continue to monitor storm developments and make decisions. Obama is scheduled to be in Ohio on Wednesday.
Romney, too, had withdrawn plans to campaign in New Hampshire and Virginia before making additional moves Monday.
All told, nearly two-dozen campaign events have been affected.
Neither side can afford much downtime. Nationally the race is a dead heat — 47 percent to 47 percent — according to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday.
Obama has been banking on a surge of last-minute rallies and grass roots activism to stir voter turnout. "Obviously we want unfettered access to the polls because we believe that the more people come out, the better we're going to do . . . that's a concern," Obama strategist David Axelrod said Sunday on CNN.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, he said, "We're obviously going to lose a bunch of campaign time, but that's as it has to be. We'll try to make it up on the back end."
The president, politically, has the built-in advantage of the office, but storms make for tricky politics.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush got a lot of credit for his handling of major storms during his tenure. His brother, President George W. Bush, was tarnished by response failures during Hurricane Katrina.
Romney sought a respectful and caring response as well. He asked supporters to donate to the Red Cross while his wife, Ann, joined him in an email to supporters on Sunday asking them to be safe. Romney's campaign also asked people to drop off supplies that could be distributed to people in need.
This is the second time a hurricane has interrupted the 2012 campaign. The first day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa was canceled as Hurricane Isaac threatened Florida.
Florida did get a visit Monday from Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, who appeared in Fernandina Beach. But two later events, in Melbourne and Lakeland, were canceled.
Plans for Wednesday, when Romney will visit the University of Miami and Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Sarasota and Ocala, are still on. So far.
Times staff writer Molly Moorhead contributed reporting from Orlando.