By Jonathan Allen
For all the talk of how the presidential campaigns would be frozen by Hurricane Sandy, the reality is this: They've simply shifted gears.
As wind and driving rain began to whip the East Coast in earnest Monday, President Barack Obama hunkered down in Washington to attend briefings — but dispatched Michelle Obama, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton to continue campaigning without him.
When it comes to natural disasters, neither side can afford to get tagged as overly political. So both campaigns tried to show they were putting the needs of storm victims first.
The reactions to Sandy reinforce the notion that every move in a presidential campaign is viewed through a political prism — by the candidates, by the strategists and by the voters they seek to sway.
Romney, in particular, finds himself in a box: He can't campaign or raise money in states affected by the storm while the president's every move, from calling governors to visiting Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters to convening meetings in the Situation Room, wraps the trappings of the Oval Office around his campaign.
But Romney has one big advantage: He is free of the risk the president bears in failing, or even appearing to fail, to pull the levers of government to effectively respond to the expected devastation. And he has little choice but to limit his campaigning.
"It's a very difficult situation for the challenger to strike the right note to not look too political but to also [be] empathetic with the victims," said Mary Kate Cary, who was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. "I don't think there are any points to be scored right now."
Romney canceled a slate of campaign events late Monday. A campaign aide said there was fear that the media would look for ways to criticize the campaign if it had gone on with a full schedule.
Earlier in the day in Iowa, Romney said he had been briefed by officials at the National Weather Service and FEMA and asked supporters to join him in praying for folks on the East Coast.
The other complication for both sides is the unique nature of the storm. Sure, there have been crises in the midst of presidential elections before, but a hurricane — and the flooding — is so uncontrollable and so unpredictable that it puts political strategists into unfamiliar territory.
"We've never seen anything like this before," one Romney aide said.
Obama, who bolted from Florida to Washington, D.C., ahead of schedule, sent out a note to his donor list Monday afternoon soliciting contributions not for a final ad push but for the Red Cross. It borrowed from the language he used in official remarks that seemed intended to remind his supporters of his commander in chief bona fides.
"Friend this is a serious storm but we are going to do what it takes to keep people safe and secure, and make sure the communities affected get the assistance they need," he wrote.
But even as Obama sought donations for the Red Cross, his aides were knocking Romney on a conference call with reporters and his campaign prepared to release a new TV ad in Ohio.
"We're obviously going to lose a bunch of campaign time but that's as it has to be," Obama political guru David Axelrod said on the conference call. "For us, it's not a matter of optics, it's a matter of responsibility and Gov. Romney can decide for himself what he wants to do."
Implicit in that remark: Others, namely Romney, are more worried about optics.
"The president has real responsibilities and those responsibilities come first," Axelrod said.
Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, suggested on the same call that the Obama organization can carry on while the president deals with the storm — which is exactly what his team telegraphed by pulling him off the campaign trail but keeping his top surrogates in Ohio, Florida and Iowa.
Two Tuesday Biden events in Ohio, and one in his hometown of Scranton, Pa., have been canned. But none of Obama's ads have been taken down, not even in storm-affected states. And Messina announced there will be a new slate of ads in Pennsylvania, which has suddenly become competitive after months of certainty for Obama. In Ohio, Obama released a new TV ad attacking Romney for comments suggesting that Jeep is moving production overseas. And an official in the state said that none of the president's ground-operation activities would be affected by the storm.
"It's annoying," the official told POLITICO. "But it's cold and rainy, which is the way it gets this time of year anyway. Maybe in the middle of the week in eastern Ohio, there may be a little more rain than normal. Everybody in Cleveland is used to this kind of crap anyway."
Romney appears to have learned a valuable lesson from Obama's approach to the optics of how a campaign reacts to real-world crises: Sometimes in politics, less is more.
In September 2008, the financial crisis provided a perfect metaphor for Obama's team, which had sought to portray its relatively young and indisputably inexperienced candidate as the steady, presidential hand and McCain as unpredictable. McCain made that contrast easy: He suspended his campaign, temporarily pulled out of a debate and raced back to Washington to pass the TARP bill. Only it didn't work out that way. Many Americans hated the Wall Street bailout, most House Republicans defected from McCain and the bill was defeated on the House floor — before it was brought up a second time and passed.
McCain's over-the-top response to the financial crisis was the opposite of George W. Bush's too-little, too-late reaction to Hurricane Katrina, which, though it did not strike in the midst of an election, did more damage to Bush's image than any other domestic issue during his presidency. At times since then, Republicans have shown extra sensitivity to natural disasters, abbreviating both their 2008 and 2012 national conventions because of hurricanes.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a top surrogate for Romney, said Romney's unlikely to misstep on this because he has experience dealing with disasters as governor of Massachusetts.
"There will be an aftermath, and a candidate needs to show compassion and empathy as he would if he were commander in chief," Chaffetz said. "To the extent you're a current officeholder, you better be doing your job."
And it's not a clear-cut victory for Obama just to be sitting in the Oval Office, according to one Democratic strategist who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely about a pitfall for the president.
The argument: If the government doesn't respond adequately, Obama will be hurt politically; and he won't get a boost for just doing his job.
Dee Dee Myers, Bill Clinton's press secretary during the 1992 campaign, remembers when Clinton and the elder Bush grappled over how to respond to Hurricane Andrew after it slammed into Florida.
"For the president, if things go badly, that's a potential liability," Myers said. "It's very, very hard to know. He's clearly going to have an opportunity to be visible in the next few days. That's potentially helpful, as long as things don't get really out of control. It's a crapshoot on both sides."
Back then, Myers said, Clinton was in Romney's spot — a challenger with no official responsibilities nipping at the heels of a sitting president. Clinton, the master of I-feel-your-pain politics, was able to show empathy on the campaign trail.
"Bill Clinton was able to go in and survey the damage and see how people were in a way that hadn't really happened with the president. That's where there was some advantage," she said. "That was a theme that was already building in the campaign."
Romney's campaign has been gathering relief supplies at campaign offices in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and other states, Ryan said at a rally in Fernandina Beach, Fla., on Monday.
"Since we all love this country, let's put our neighbors to the north in our prayers," Ryan said.
"This is going to be a big storm. The great thing about America is when we go through tough times like this, we all pull together," Obama told reporters on Monday. "The good news is we can clean up and we will get through this."
— Reid J. Epstein, Maggie Haberman, James Hohmann and Juana Summers contributed to this report.
Jonathan Allen is a reporter for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.