JUDY WOODRUFF: It's become a ritual of modern presidential elections to look for an October surprise, a late-breaking development that requires both sides to recalibrate. This year, it's come in the form of a massive storm.
Sandy scrambled campaign plans, whether they were in the area affected by the hurricane or not. Republican challenger Mitt Romney went ahead and held a rally in Avon Lake, Ohio, this morning, but said everyone's thoughts should be with those in the storm's path.
MITT ROMNEY (R): You with full hearts and clear eyes can see what's happening across the country right now. And on the eastern coast of our nation, a lot of people are enduring some very difficult times.
We have faced these kind of challenges before. And as we have, it's interesting to see how Americans come together. And this -- this looks like another time when we need to come together all across the country, even here in Ohio, and make sure that we give of our support to the people who need it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney planned an afternoon event in Iowa, before suspending his schedule tonight when the hurricane is coming ashore.
Instead, his campaign loaded emergency supplies on to the Romney bus in Virginia to deliver to storm relief centers after Sandy hits. President Obama had been in Orlando, Fla., last night. He delivered pizzas to a local campaign office, but called off an appearance there today with former President Clinton.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Which means that, you know, that's going to be putting a little bit more burden on folks in the field, because I'm not going to be able to campaign quite as much over the next couple of days.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, neither side could afford to let Sandy derail all campaigning. So Mr. Clinton soldiered on in his absence.
BILL CLINTON, former U.S. president: I say let's give the jobs to the man who has done the job, so he can finish the job.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JUDY WOODRUFF: In his White House statement on the hurricane today, the president said politics would simply take a back seat for now.
BARACK OBAMA: I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election. I'm worried about the impact on families. And I'm worried about the impact on our first-responders. I'm worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation. The election will take care of itself next week.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In all, the hurricane forced cancellation of two dozen campaign events on both sides. And it could spell trouble for early voting in a number of states.
Over the weekend, hundreds of people showed up at polling places in Maryland trying to get in their vote before Sandy strikes. Voting there was canceled today.
Nearby Virginia was one of several battleground states in the storm's path. Election officials there eased absentee voting requirements for those affected. All of that may create even more uncertainty in a race that's already a tossup. A new PewResearchCenter poll found the contest dead even among likely voters nationally, with both candidates getting 47 percent.
As a result, major endorsements may become even more crucial for the two camps. The New York Times endorsed the president for reelection over the weekend, while Iowa's largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, endorsed Romney. It had not backed a Republican for president since 1972.
As for the vice presidential running mates, both remained on the campaign trail with just eight precious days before Election Day. Republican Paul Ryan was in Fernandina Beach, Fla. And Vice President Biden replaced the president at a late-day event in Ohio.
So what impact will the storm have on the final week of the race?
To examine that and the state of the campaign, we are joined by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today, and Dan Balz, chief correspondent of The Washington Post.
Welcome to you both.
Dan, to you first. So, what effect is this big storm having on the campaign?
DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Well, as you have reported, it has shut down campaign activity for the most part. And that will continue to be the case at least until Wednesday, when both campaigns reevaluate whether it's prudent or proper for either President Obama or Gov. Romney to return to the campaign trail.
They're operating with very little information. We can't know at this point just how devastating the damage might turn out to be. As a result, I think both campaigns are being very cautious about what they do other than paying attention to the storm.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, what's your read on how the campaigns are dealing with all this?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Well, I think there are two things to look at.
One is just the logistics. For instance, does it affect -- does the storm affect early voting that's going on now in Ohio and North Carolina and Virginia?
But a second thing is kind of the larger atmospherics. What is the effect of having President Obama go off the campaign trail back to the White House? The White House just this afternoon released a photo of him meeting in the Situation Room to get an update on storm damage.
It seems to me that also has an impact on a race where Gov. Romney has been making some progress in recent days. Does this kind of freeze things where they are now?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that's what I wanted to ask you, Susan. Does one candidate or another pick up an automatic advantage in a situation like this?
SUSAN PAGE: I don't think there's an automatic advantage until we know what happens with this terrible storm.
But if the federal government seems to be responding in an effective way, I think that's to President Obama's benefit. Not only does its make his administration look competent, but it kind of makes the case for a government role. The role of government has been one of the fundamental debates between these two candidates.
If, on the other hand, the federal response doesn't look so competent, we have seen how devastating that can be for incumbent presidents. We saw that with Katrina, for instance, and George W. Bush.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Dan, what about a role for Gov. Romney at a time like this?
DAN BALZ: Well, it's minimal at this point.
I mean, he really has to remain essentially invisible. And he can't look like he's trying to do anything to exploit the politics of the moment. So in a sense, there's more potential upside for President Obama, but, as Susan said, more potential downside.
For Gov. Romney, I think it is a matter of just kind of waiting and watching and then deciding at what point he can go back out. I mean, one of the issues is, does this short-circuit kind of the surge of energy that we have seen around the Romney campaign?
There's no question that there is more energy out there in the Republican base and at events that he's been holding.
Does this affect that in some way that would be detrimental to him? These are all questions that we can't answer tonight.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean because we just don't know when they're going to be back on the trail. There's just no way to gauge that.
DAN BALZ: That's exactly right. I mean, we obviously know they will be back out at some point later in the week. But we don't know quite where they will be able to go. We don't know what states they won't be able to visit that they had planned to visit in the final stretch of this.
And so once they -- I mean, Jim Messina, the campaign manager for President Obama, was on a conference call today and a reporter from North Carolina said, will we see the president back in North Carolina before next Tuesday? And Jim Messina hedged on that. He said, we're doing everything we can to win, but we're on a day-to-day assessment of the schedule.
So, for Gov. Romney, it's the same kind of situation. There are places he may want to try to go to between now and Tuesday that he's not going to be able to get to, simply because of lack of time or because of storm damage.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, you raised this a minute ago, the impact on voting itself, absentee, early voting and voting on Election Day. We were hearing a few minutes ago this storm could have an aftermath that goes on for days.
SUSAN PAGE: And you know, we have expected 35 to 40 percent of the votes to be cast before Election Day because of the rise in early voting and absentee voting. This affects such a big part of the country. Does that affect that number?
And which organization is better able to respond to some of these last-minute challenges? I think you would have to say that the Obama campaign has a bigger ground operation. They have put more focus on the ground, although Republicans have done a lot to build up a ground operation that was really outclassed four years ago.
This is -- October -- it's the nature an October surprise that you do not know exactly the effect it is going to have. This might affect the release of that jobs number on Friday that we have all been waiting for. And even if the jobs number comes out, maybe it overwhelms it. Who knows.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The unemployment report for the month of October.
Dan, what about the state of the race right now? You have been looking -- both of you have been looking at the polls. But where does this race stand right now?
DAN BALZ: Judy, it is very, very, very, very close nationally. You mentioned the Pew survey that came out today at 47 percent each. Our new tracking poll which came out at 5:00 today showed both candidates at 49 percent.
There are some other polls that show it slightly different. But every indication is that nationally this is a very close race. The question is, where do things stand exactly in the battleground states? The Obama campaign has been insistent that they continue to have leads in enough battleground states to win the election.
The Romney campaign insists that they are in a position to be able to overtake the president in a number of these states. So, we're playing in part a game of spin. And somebody is going to be proven right or wrong. But we know that some of these states have tightened up from where they were a month ago. And I think that, as Susan said, part of the issue is who is going to be able to get their voters out at this point, under what could be some difficult circumstances?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, how are you reading these polls right now?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I'm struck over and over again by the damage that President Obama did to his campaign in that first debate.
It's like your mother always told you, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. In this Pew poll that is just out, more than a third of voters said their impression of Gov. Romney was improved in that first debate. And we know from the USA Today/Gallup poll that the first debate had much more impact than the second and third debates.
People thought President Obama won the second and third debates, but it's the first debate that had such a big impression. And another thing that strikes me, 47-47, 49-49.
In an election that is that tight and in an election where the president is probably -- has a slightly better standing in the swing states, we could have the kind of split decision we had in 2000., where President Obama wins the Electoral College and Mitt Romney wins the popular vote.
That is possible with the scenario we see now.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Dan, the Pew poll also shows that the voters who favor Gov. Romney say they are more interested and more likely to definitely turn out to vote than are those who are favoring the president.
DAN BALZ: Yes, and that's a very important indicator. And another factor in that, that same poll shows that Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting for Gov. Romney.
But earlier in the fall, a higher percentage of Republicans said they were voting against President Obama. Today, a higher percentage of Republicans, a majority say they are voting for Gov. Romney. So, there has been a change in enthusiasm.
Judy, I think one question that every pollster and every analyst that I have talked to recently is trying to figure out is, what will the composition of this electorate be?
Will Republicans equal Democrats in the number -- percentage of the vote? What will the percentage of white voters be vs. non-white voters? Because this is so close, all of those questions are vitally important. And we can't tell that in advance.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, finally, Susan, in just a few seconds, what do you look for in these final days of the trail to see when the candidates get back out, what they're saying?
SUSAN PAGE: Yes, absolutely. And where do they go?
You know, they're only going to have a couple days after they can get back on the campaign trail after Sandy has done whatever it's going to do. What states do they go to? That tells you what states are really in play.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan Page, Dan Balz, we thank you both.
SUSAN PAGE: Thank you, Judy.
DAN BALZ: Thank you.