Editorial: Storm transforms presidential race

MICHAEL CUMMINGS EDITOR
Last updated 12:00 01/11/2012

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OPINION: A week from today, the outcome of the United States presidential election should be known. With the race for the White House incredibly close, President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney would have both been keeping an anxious eye out for what is known in the US as an "October surprise" - an unpredictable event that dramatically alters the dynamic of the campaign. It's becoming increasingly clear Hurricane Sandy is just such an event.

Though it's difficult to judge exactly how influential the massive storm will be to the outcome of the election next Wednesday, at the very least it has stalled the strong momentum Mr Romney had gathered recently.

All but written off only a month ago, Mr Romney enjoyed a dramatic surge in the polls after his impressive performance in the first presidential debate against a comparatively listless incumbent.

With the storm claiming at least 50 lives and crippling the densely-populated east coast of the US, the election campaign was effectively frozen as the entire nation's attention fixed firmly on the disaster. As that happened, Mr Obama was instantly transformed from candidate stumping for votes to commander-in-chief steering the country through a national crisis.

Both campaigns were at great pains to avoid the appearance of politicising the disaster, but both are acutely aware of the political opportunities and risks associated with the situation. If Mr Obama mishandled the federal government's response in any way, he would draw devastating comparisons with his predecessor, George W Bush, whose presidency was forever blighted by his woeful leadership after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His chances of re-election would be blown away by the storm.

As it's transpired, though, Mr Obama's leadership this week has already drawn resounding praise from all sides of the political spectrum, including a glowing assessment from one of Mr Romney's staunchest allies, Chris Christie, who is the Republican governor of hard-hit New Jersey.

Through no fault of his own, Mr Romney has been left looking impotent while Mr Obama wields the huge power of his office to help the millions of people affected by the storm. Instead of spending the last few days closing out his argument that the president's policies have stifled the country's slow economic recovery, Mr Romney is being questioned about why last year he advocated dismantling the government disaster response agency that is now helping people devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

Politics seems incredibly small when viewed next to the scenes of death and destruction witnessed this week, but attention will shift back to the election in six days' time. What voters see might be very different from what was there before they looked away.

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- Manawatu Standard

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