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Hurricane injects uncertainty into presidential campaign

 

Updated at 9:16 p.m. ET: An impending hurricane injected a new degree of uncertainty into the 2012 presidential campaign, impacting candidates' schedules and early voting opportunities just nine days before Election Day.

President Barack Obama called the storm "serious and big" following a briefing at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA), warning residents in the storm's path "to take this very seriously."

In the campaigns' waning days, President Barack Obama is forced to juggle dual responsibilities – the incoming storm and his push to encourage early voting. Several key swing states are in the storm's path. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

The president also canceled campaign trips to Virginia and Colorado scheduled for early this week, the last full week of campaigning this election, in order to monitor Hurricane Sandy. The storm's impending landfall was poised to add a new variable to a presidential contest that has tightened considerably in its closing days, along with scores of downballot races up and down the East Coast.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney canceled planned stops in Virginia — one of the most hotly-contested battleground states this fall — on Sunday and headed to Ohio instead. 

Obama spent Sunday in Washington, where he traveled to FEMA headquarters following church services early this afternoon. The administration authorized several emergency declarations for states sitting in Sandy's path, and Obama convened a conference call with administration officials and governors in the storm's path to receive an update on preparations.

The storm put some of Obama's campaigning on hold, as he canceled a northern Virginia event for that afternoon, along with an event in Colorado Springs on Tuesday. Obama was still set, though, to travel to Youngtown, Ohio on Monday morning. The president appears — for now — intent upon returning to the campaign trail on Tuesday evening in Green Bay, Wis. His campaign also advised on Sunday afternoon that two stops on Wednesday in Ohio would go forward.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation on Hurricane Sandy as the storm prepares to hit the East Coast.

The storm might have rearranged Romney's own campaign itinerary, though it's unclear whether the GOP presidential hopeful will be able to return to Virginia soon. Romney didn't address the storm in his remarks in Celine, Ohio, but his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, urged voters in the Buckeye State to keep East Coasters in their thoughts and prayers.

Nonetheless, the hurricane could prove to be the proverbial "October Surprise" of this campaign as it upended other elements of the election well before it had even made landfall.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) canceled early voting in his state for Monday, a decision other east coast governors could mirror. That could have an especially pronounced impact on a state like Virginia, a battleground state in the presidential election and home to a competitive Senate race.

Late Sunday, Governor Dannel P. Malloy signed an executive order to extend in-person voter registration in Connecticut to Thursday, Nov. 1. The deadline had originally been Tuesday.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, said on Sunday's TODAY show that he didn't worry about power outages or other complications from the storm diminishing voting in the state.

Virginia and its 13 critical electoral votes are in play, but now Hurricane Sandy threatens to throw the campaigns off course. Obama and Romney have canceled appearances there. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

"It's going to be, probably, seven days from the time the storm passes 'til Election Day," he said. "We've already taken precautions to move up polling places to a higher spot for restoration. The power companies are well aware of that. So I don't think it's going to interfere with voting."

But Democrats are counting on robust turnout — both through early voting and on Nov. 6 — to propel Obama to a second term. While Sandy's projected path is uncertain, its rain and wind could discourage voters in the key swing state of Ohio from voting early, a practice employed by both campaigns to bank votes ahead of Election Day.

"Obviously we want unfettered access to the polls, because we believe that the more people come out, the better we’re going to do,” David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama's re-election campaign, said Sunday on CNN. “And so, to the extent that it makes it harder, that’s a source of concern.”

The president himself downplayed worries about the storm's impact on voting. 

"We don't anticipate that at this point but we're obviously going to have to take a look," he said in Washington following his FEMA briefing.