A crowd cheers at a New Hampshire rally for Mitt Romney. Interviews in battleground… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)
REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — Gabrielle Smith is that rarest of rarities, coveted by both sides in the presidential campaign: an undecided voter in the bull's-eye state of Ohio.
As a teacher, she doesn't like Mitt Romney's support for charter schools. But she also thinks President Obama has spent too much money, and she worries about the size of the federal debt.
The 28-year-old Democrat plans to make her choice in the voting booth and says there isn't much at this point either candidate can do to sway her — she already mutes their TV ads — and that includes their responses to the devastation caused by super storm Sandy.
"That's a singular situation," said Smith, shopping in the produce section of a supermarket in Reynoldsburg, a bustling suburb east of Columbus. "That isn't how people will lead in the long term."
Sandy is shaping up as one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, killing scores, leaving millions without electricity and ravaging a huge swath of the East Coast. It struck just about a week before election day — a classic October surprise — introducing an added overlay of uncertainty to a contest that for weeks has been too close to call.
It also gives both sides a ready-made excuse if they fall short on Tuesday. It wasn't negative campaigning, widespread economic anxiety, distaste for the candidates' personalities or doubts about their policies that cost them the election: It was Sandy's fault.
But judging from interviews with dozens of voters across a handful of the hardest-fought states, not many have changed their minds based on the storm-shadowed politics of the last week.
"People who are making up their minds on who to vote for are weighing a lot of factors, like the economy and a woman's choice about her body," said Justin Favela, 26, a Democrat who works at the newly opened Neon Museum in downtown Las Vegas.
He voted early, casting his ballot for Obama, joining more than 28 million Americans who haven't waited for Tuesday to make their preferences known. That too mitigates the political impact of the storm and any benefit Obama may gain from his widely praised response.
A nationwide Washington Post-ABC poll, taken Tuesday night, found 8 in 10 of those surveyed approved of the president's performance. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, conducted later in the week in Florida and Ohio, found 7 in 10 voters in the two key battlegrounds gave Obama similarly high marks.
Some Republicans fret that the president may gain a last-minute advantage from abandoning the role of candidate last week to focus on his job as commander (and consoler) in chief. After dropping off the campaign trail for two days to oversee Washington's response, Obama took a widely publicized tour of the Jersey Shore with the state's Republican Gov. Chris Christie, one of Romney's highest-profile supporters. The two former antagonists lavished praised on one another.
On Saturday, Obama attended a briefing at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, then flew to Ohio, where he offered an addition to his standard campaign speech, citing the party-blind, neighbor-helping-neighbor spirit engendered by Sandy.
"It's a spirit that says no matter how bad a storm is, no matter how tough times are, we're all in this together," Obama told the crowd at Mentor High School. "We rise or fall as one nation and as one people."
Some, weary of the jagged line separating the two parties, have been impressed by Obama's seamless work with Christie, hoping it might portend more bipartisanship in a second term. "Baby steps," is how Kelley Hood described it.
"We've been divided for a long time, in many ways," said Hood, pausing between errands in Wheat Ridge, Colo., a close-in suburb of Denver. "We've got to come together. They've got to come together," she said, referring to elected leaders. "They're our biggest example."
Hood, 52, is a Democrat who voted four years ago for Republican John McCain because of her religious views. She remains undecided, but events of the last week have made her lean toward reelecting Obama. "He's showing us a way to work together when we need to," Hood said.
For many more, however, the president's actions merely confirmed what they already knew to be true; the storm and Washington's response, like so much else in this acrimonious election year, were refracted through a partisan lens.
Lisa Medford, a retired Las Vegas showgirl, praised FEMA for its response and gave no credit to the president.
"Obama is trying to do his job, which he hasn't been doing the last four years," Medford said from beneath a hair dryer at a beauty parlor in Henderson, outside Las Vegas. A Republican who voted last week for Romney, she called the storm a gift to the incumbent: "He gets to play president in costume with his little leather jacket" — the one prominently emblazoned with the presidential seal.