By Burgess Everett and Bob King
President Barack Obama told millions of American bracing for the landfall of Hurricane Sandy that he's "confident" the country is ready — but he warned people to take heed of warnings from their mayors and governors.
"When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate. Do not delay," Obama said, shortly after he cut short a campaign swing through Florida to return to Washington to oversee the storm response.
"This is going to be a big storm; this is going to be a difficult storm. The great thing about America is when we go through tough times like this, we all pull together," the president said in a statement to reporters. "The good news is we will clean up, and we will get through this."
Mitt Romney also scrambled his schedule in response to Sandy, announcing he was shelving campaign events across the country "out of sensitivity" for millions in the path of the storm.
Romney was still going forward with an event Monday afternoon in Davenport, Iowa, which the campaign decided not to cancel because setup had begun and doors had opened. But he will no longer appear in Ohio on Monday night and on Tuesday, and his running mate Paul Ryan will shelve campaigning in Florida later Monday and Colorado on Tuesday, Romney communications director Gail Gitcho wrote to reporters in an email.
"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," Gitcho said.
During an earlier campaign appearance, Romney called on people in Ohio to support those back East bracing for the storm. "I'd like to ask you that are here today to think about making a contribution to the Red Cross or another relief agency, to be of help if you possibly can," Romney said.
The schedule changes are just part of the unpredictability that Sandy has injected into the presidential campaign. The sense of urgency escalated Monday afternoon when the National Hurricane Center announced that Sandy was now moving more quickly toward an evening landfall on the coast of southern New Jersey.
Asked what effect the storm might have on an election just eight days away, Obama said that "the election will take care of itself next week." He said his focus was on responding to the storm as "quickly as possible to get the economy back on track."
The remarks came after Obama returned to Washington just after 11 a.m. Monday and spoke with top brass, including Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, National Hurricane Center Director Richard Knabb, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Obama had campaign events scheduled in Florida, Ohio and Virginia on Monday and in Wisconsin on Tuesday, but he shelved them and returned to Washington to monitor the storm — forecasted as one of the most powerful ever to hit the Northeast.
"The storm overnight picked up speed and intensity. And a decision was made that in order to return to Washington to monitor and oversee the efforts to prepare for the storm and respond to it, we needed to leave earlier than planned," press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday. "It's essential in his view that he be in Washington, one of the areas that will be affected, and where his team is to oversee that effort."
In a press call with reporters on the state of the presidential race, senior Obama strategist David Axelrod called the storm a "a very, very concerning situation."
"We're obviously going to lose a bunch of campaign time, but that's as it has to be," Axelrod said. "For us, it's not a matter of optics; it's a matter of responsibility."
Sandy gained speed and strength this morning as it began curving toward what could become a history-making landfall Monday evening.
The storm's highest sustained winds surged to 90 mph this morning as it began moving toward the north-northwest, the National Hurricane Center said in its 2 p.m. update. That places Sandy toward the strong end of Category 1 on the 1-through-5 hurricane scale.
The storm is moving more quickly than in previous days, and its center is expected to make landfall early Monday evening along southern New Jersey, allowing its counterclockwise-swirling winds to create a life-threatening storm surge. But once it makes landfall, the storm is expected to move less rapidly, FEMA's Fugate said.
"This is going to slow down, and there will be that period where the storm is still impacting areas, and that will impact how quickly we can begin response operations," Fugate said in a conference call with reporters.
As of 2 p.m., Sandy's center was 110 miles southeast of Atlantic City, N.J., and 175 miles off New York City.
Sandy's impact could spread as far inland as the mountains of Southwestern Virginia, Western Maryland and West Virginia, which could see up to 3 feet of snow in some areas. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the storm surge in New York had already reached levels of Hurricane Irene last year.
Winds of 58 mph or greater looked increasingly likely to affect New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Rain in parts of those states is projected to exceed 7 inches by Wednesday.
Cuomo reported via Twitter Monday afternoon that wind gusts neared 70 mph in New York City, where the city's subway system and schools are closed.
The New York Stock Exchange will remain closed on Tuesday for the second day in a row, with U.S. markets set to reopen on Wednesday "conditions permitting."
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley gave a dire warning in an update Monday morning.
"There will be people who die and are killed in this storm," he said, urging Maryland residents to stay off the road for the next 36 hours. In a later update, O'Malley said Tuesday's early voting will be canceled in Maryland, as it was on Monday.
The District of Columbia also canceled early voting on Tuesday.
And with his state on track to take the brunt of the storm, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called those who were ignoring evacuation orders "both stupid and selfish."
In the service's Baltimore/Washington office, meteorologists warned of gusts as high as 60 mph, with some parts of Maryland getting as much as 70 mph.
On Monday afternoon, Obama signed an emergency declaration for Delaware, authorizing federal assistance for the response to Sandy. He had earlier signed declarations for Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York state.
James Hohmann, Donovan Slack, Andrew Restuccia and Reid J. Epstein contributed to this report.
Burgess Everett and Bob King are reporters for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.