By Alexandra Jaffe - 10/29/12 12:20 PM EDT
Tight polls in a number of battleground states and a monumental storm that could hamper get-out-the-vote efforts have shuffled an already unpredictable presidential race, with eight days remaining before Election Day.
Hurricane Sandy is poised to be this year’s October surprise, forcing both President Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney to rearrange their campaign schedules, canceling events in important states, with little time left before the election.
Those lost opportunities for the presidential contenders to rally supporters and sway undecided voters in key states could be crucial.
Obama's campaign previously had canceled his events in Ohio and Virginia on Monday and his trip to Colorado on Tuesday, as well as the first lady's trip to New Hampshire that day.
Romney will swing through Wisconsin and Ohio on Monday, and is scheduled to stop in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Ryan will spend time in Florida on Monday.
The candidates' revamped schedules come as new national polls this weekend showed Romney holding an edge on the president, but with many of the key swing states that will determine the election still close.
Romney held a 4-point edge, at 50-46, among likely voters in Sunday’s Gallup daily tracking poll. In the tracking survey from conservative pollster Rasmussen, Romney topped Obama 50-47. A Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll, though, showed a statistical dead heat, with Romney up 49-48.
Swing-state polls, however, continue to reflect tight races, with many battlegrounds still a toss-up.
A new Washington Post poll of Virginia, which is bracing for Sandy’s Monday landfall, shows Obama's lead there shrinking. The president now holds 51 percent support to Romney's 47, down from an 8-percentage-point lead in mid-September.
And if Virginia faces widespread power outages similar to what it saw from a severe storm earlier this summer, voters could have trouble getting to the polls — potentially jeopardizing thousands of votes that could sway the already close race in the state.
Obama senior campaign adviser David Axelrod acknowledged concern on CNN's “State of the Union” Sunday that Sandy could cost the president votes.
“Obviously, we want unfettered access to the polls, because we believe that the more people come out, the better we’re going to do,” he said. “And so, to the extent that it makes it harder, that’s a source of concern.”
But Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a prominent Romney surrogate, said on Sunday that state authorities are taking all the necessary precautions, and that polling places will be a top priority when restoring power.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) was already forced to cancel early voting on Monday.
Yet while the storm could negatively affect voters on both sides, it could also offer a last-minute opportunity for President Obama to show leadership in a national crisis, bolstering him in the polls.
The president has attempted to balance his efforts to oversee the federal response with his campaign obligations. On Sunday, he spoke at a briefing with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, warning residents that Sandy was a “serious and big storm.”
But there's also a risk that Obama could face criticism if the federal response is mishandled.
Any opportunity to show leadership, though, would likely be a welcome one for the president, with Republicans hammering him over his administration’s handling of the economic recovery as well as the White House’s response to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
But with a shifting electoral map, both candidates will be pressed to use the little time remaining rallying voters.
Obama faces challenges in Ohio, Minnesota and Pennsylvania as well, where tightening polls show Romney gaining in states that were believed to be likely wins for the president.
It’s unlikely Romney or Obama can win the Electoral College calculus if they don't take Ohio, a state that had been trending slightly in the president's advantage but has remained close throughout the race.
A new poll from the Ohio Newspaper Association released Sunday puts both candidates at 49 percent, down from a 5-percentage-point lead for Obama last month.
Romney joined running mate Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanOvernight Finance: GOP faces dilemma on spending bills | CEOs push Congress on tax rules | Trump talks energy Overnight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Bible verse prompts GOP walkout after LGBT vote labeled a sin MORE (R-Wis.) to stump there instead of Virginia on Sunday, and the opening there was enough for the campaign to plan a rally this coming Friday featuring Ann and Mitt Romney and Ryan — a rarity, with the campaign usually splitting the three on the trail.
But Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter dismissed the recent polling, insisting that Ohio looked like a win because of the campaign's ground game and early voting push.
“Our people are turning out, and they’re turning out in very high numbers,” she said on ABC’s “This Week."
Republicans also touted their ground game Sunday, with Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Reince Priebus telling CNN Sunday, “We’re going to do more voter contacts this year compared to all of 2008 and all of 2004 combined.”
Former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonThe Trail 2016: Interleague play Could Romanian hacker ‘Guccifer’ assist FBI’s probe of Clinton? Trump: Vince Foster shouldn’t be a campaign issue MORE’s appearance in Youngstown, Ohio, on Monday, however, will be a high-profile effort by the Obama campaign to prevent further slippage in support there.
Obama might also have to shower increased attention on Pennsylvania. Once a likely win for Obama, a new poll out from the Philadelphia Inquirer this weekend put the president below 49 percent support in the state. The numbers marked a slight decline from September, but an uncomfortable position for any incumbent.
The volatility there has caused Republicans to be newly bullish on their chances in the state, with a GOP super-PAC investing for the first time in the state's Senate race.
Obama's campaign announced this weekend that the vice president's wife will campaign in the state on Sunday and Monday, and Vice President Biden himself will appear at rallies in Pennsylvania on Thursday.
Minnesota, too, could become a new challenge for Obama: A poll for the Minneapolis Star Tribune gives Obama a 3-percentage-point lead over Romney, which is within the 3.5-point margin of error and a drop from an 8-point lead in September.
ABC News reported on Friday that both campaigns purchased airtime in the state, an indication it could be seeing and hearing more of the candidates in the coming days.
Though Romney officials have long floated the idea of expanding the number of battleground states they are contesting, such a prospect seemed unlikely until this weekend, and the spate of new polls gave the campaign reason to launch a fundraising pitch based around potentially engaging in newly contested battlegrounds.
"Today, we launch ExpandTheMap.com — an opportunity to take our message into new states and tell voters about our plan to create 12 million new jobs," an email from the campaign reads.
This story was posted at 5 a.m. and updated at 8:20 a.m.