KETTERING, Ohio - Superstorm Sandy's mayhem is upending the final week of the presidential race, with President Barack Obama calling off another of the waning days left to campaign and Republican Mitt Romney struggling to strike the right tone as he tries to close the deal with voters.
The White House announced Tuesday that Obama will not go ahead with a Wednesday campaign swing through Ohio. He plans to remain in Washington to monitor recovery efforts for the storm that practically shut down New York City and spread damage across the East Coast.
Romney and running mate Paul Ryan initially announced they were canceling events out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in Sandy's path. But with only a week left to try to toss Obama from office, the GOP campaign was back on Tuesday with events in the critical Midwestern swing states of Ohio and Iowa, albeit with changes to the program.
"We have heavy hearts, as you know, with all the suffering going on, in a major part of our country," Romney said before helping collect food donations for relief efforts. "A lot of people hurting this morning, they were hurting last night. And the storm goes on."
Romney spoke for less than five minutes and avoided politics at what his campaign billed as a "storm relief event" in the same Ohio gymnasium as his previously scheduled political rally and with the same entertainment from country music singer Randy Owen. The event was moved up four hours and the tone would be changed, with none of the usual attacks on the president, who was at the White House overseeing the response.
Effusive praise for Obama's leadership came in Tuesday from a surprising source - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who has been campaigning for Romney across the country and a pointed Obama critic. He said in a series of morning television show interviews that Obama was in touch throughout the night as the storm struck New Jersey, including a call at midnight, and effectively expedited much-needed disaster relief.
"The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit," Christie told MSNBC's "Morning Joe." ''I've been on the phone with him, like I said, yesterday personally three times. He gave me his number at the White House, told me to call him if I need anything, and he absolutely means it. It's been very good working with the president."
The White House said Obama was speaking frequently to other governors and mayors in affected areas. The White House released a photo of the president receiving an update on the response from the Situation Room.
"The president told his team that their top priority is to make sure all available resources are being provided to state and local responders as quickly as possible and directed them to identify and resolve any potential bottlenecks or shortfalls should they arise," the White House said in a statement.
Vice President Joe Biden participated in the videoconference from Ohio, where he was holding in a Columbus hotel until the campaign decides it's the right moment to hold additional political events. First lady Michelle Obama had also called off her campaign events.
The president's campaign also tried to act as if was rising above the political fray in an e-mail to supporters asking for donation to the Red Cross. "Soon enough we'll need to get back to work on the most important campaign of our lifetime," wrote campaign manager Jim Messina. "But the most important thing at this moment is that you and your loved ones are staying safe, and that the rest of us do what we can to help speed the recovery."
Millions were left without power as the deadly storm whipped its way through presidential battlegrounds like North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire and sprawled as far as the Great Lakes, where gales threatened Ohio's and Wisconsin's lakeside regions.
Some election centers in the affected states were shut down, but early voting continued in areas outside Sandy's path. After casting her ballot for Obama at the Franklin County early voting center Tuesday, Lydia Strauss, of Columbus, said she didn't anticipate the storm changing the outcome in Ohio.
"People feel strongly about this election and they're not going to be deterred," said the 42-year-old social worker.
Romney planned to resume an aggressive campaign schedule beginning Wednesday, with three events in Florida with former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. He planned to return to Virginia Thursday, after canceling events there Sunday ahead of the storm.
Aides say they are reviewing his plans on almost an hourly basis, but expect the campaign to get back to normal. They are still considering a plan to send Romney to New Jersey later in the week, where he could meet with victims and gauge the storm damage with Christie. The move would follow the path Romney took in the wake of Hurricane Irene following the Republican National Convention, when he toured storm damage in Louisiana with Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a supporter.
At the same time, Romney aides insist they are serious about expanding their efforts in battleground states largely considered safe territory for Democrats.
The campaign is launching a statewide advertising campaign in Pennsylvania, a state that aides say is in play, although Romney had no plans to visit the state. Ryan planned to campaign across his home state of Wisconsin in an attempt to expand the playing field. The campaign also invited local media to cover Ryan's plane landing Tuesday over the state border in Minnesota, a state that's been in the Democratic column since 1976.
Romney's campaign grappled with how he should respond to the storm, without the official duties that gave Obama a leadership role. When the president rushed out of battleground Florida on Monday morning before a scheduled rally to return to the White House to monitor the storm, Romney aides initially said he and Ryan would continue working for votes away from the storm's path.
But they apparently concluded that Romney couldn't afford to waste time out of the spotlight in such a closely fought race, with polling showing an Obama advantage in several swing states. Later Monday evening, the campaign announced the Kettering event, with local news reports saying supporters should bring food donations.
The event was set up with all the trappings of a typical Romney campaign rally, although the program was changed. A biographical video first aired at the Republican National Convention this summer was showing on large screens set up for several hundred supporters gathered inside a school basketball arena before Romney took the stage.
Inside, campaign staff and volunteers collected donations in the back of the room. They stacked canned goods, boxes of diapers, chocolate bars, bottled water, fleece blankets and jars of peanuts. Romney joined them after his remarks, taking grocery bags of donations from lined-up supporters for about half an hour.
Romney refused to answer repeated shouted questions from reporters about how he would run the Federal Emergency Management Agency as president. He said during the Republican primary race that he wants to return control of some federal functions to the states. Aides also ignored multiple email inquiries about whether Romney favors additional federal aid to help recover from Sandy.
The Romney camp also announced that a political rally in Des Moines, Iowa, would go on at the same time as previously scheduled Tuesday night, with Ann Romney filling in for her husband as the headliner. Ryan was slated to visit campaign offices in his home state of Wisconsin to thank the volunteers helping to collect relief supplies for storm victims.
Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said the campaign was in contact with local relief organizations and the Red Cross to make sure the supplies they were collecting Tuesday would be useful.
"We checked to make sure the supplies would be helpful and welcomed as part of our volunteer effort. And our own volunteers will be personally delivering the supplies to the relief center," Madden said.