SALT LAKE CITY — With Election Day less than a week away, the deadly superstorm Sandy may have wiped out much of Mitt Romney's momentum in his race against President Barack Obama.
"The momentum was really going with Romney and, all of sudden, this puts a brake on it," said South Carolina pollster Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University. "He may be able to recover, but it doesn't look good right now."
Woodard said before the massive storm slammed into the East Coast leaving devastation in its wake, he believed the Republican challenger would win next Tuesday's election.
Now, he said, Obama has the opportunity to look presidential in news reports about the storm and its aftermath over at least the next few days, leaving Romney little time to regain voter attention.
"I was really optimistic last week. I'm not as optimistic this week. I'm kind of getting a little down," Woodard said. "I've never seen anything quite like this at the end. … You need momentum."
Romney focused on the fallout from Sandy at a "storm relief event" Wednesday in Ohio, a key battleground state, at the same place and with the same celebrities as a previously scheduled "victory rally." Thursday, he has a rally set for Florida and is expected to tour the damage done by the storm in Virginia.
Colorado State University political science professor Kyle Saunders said it's going to be tough for Romney to shift the public's attention back to the issues that have been strong for him, jobs and the economy.
"He has to somehow turn the volume back up. That's the problem, once you've turned the volume down," Saunders said. "Romney's got to do something. I just don't know what it is."
That could prove difficult because the storm "provides a distraction, especially to people who might have just now been starting to tune into the race," he said.
Still, Saunders said, Romney has to find a balance between not being seen as too critical of the president during a disaster and getting his campaign message heard by voters, especially in Colorado, where the race is too close to call.
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said Romney was already running out of time to win over undecided voters when the storm hit.
"It doesn't help Romney losing several days this week," Scala said, time he was expected to use driving home his economic message. "It doesn't mean he can't win, but (the storm) does take some of the oxygen out of the room for sure."
Romney can't count on the boost he received from his strong performance in the first presidential debate earlier this month to carry him through Tuesday, Scala said.
"The first debate momentum is gone now. It served its purpose," he said. "Now he needs something else unless there's some major surprise. And after Hurricane Sandy, I'm not sure what else there is."
University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor David Damore said whatever Romney does to reengage voters, he has to make sure he's not seen as politicizing the storm.
"He has to be careful with his tone," Damore said, noting there may be something of a silver lining for Romney, giving him a chance to "demonstrate his compassion and that he does care about people."
Romney's privileged background and personal wealth, as well as his recently revealed comments about 47 percent of Americans being too dependent on government, have made it hard for him to connect with voters.
"It's a sort of wild card," Damore said, adding that Romney is also likely to be a "little gun shy" after the criticism he received for issuing a press release following last month's deadly attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney supporter, said the storm has put Romney in a difficult situation.
"The president gets to act presidential and he gets the free 'earned' media. Romney is forced to sit out the storm," Jowers said. "In a perfect world, there would be no perfect storm a week before the election."
Jowers said the storm is impacting early voting, important for both campaigns because it is expected to account for some 40 percent of the ballots cast in the presidential race.
"There's a lot of conventional wisdom, but the fact is it can and will hurt both candidates," he said of the storm.
Just how the candidates are being affected by the storm, however, won't be clear until pollsters return to the field.
It's not clear when the polling postponed in the wake of the storm will resume, but Jowers said if voters view the president more favorably as a result of how he has handled the disaster, that's going to be a problem for Romney to overcome.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a key surrogate for Romney, said he expects the campaign to be in full swing again by the weekend
Chaffetz, set to hit the road for Romney in several swing states later this week, said he isn't changing the campaign speech he delivers as a result of the storm.
"You feel for the people who are going through suffering and heartache," the congressman said, noting that he has several relatives hit hard by the storm. "But the election is still about jobs and the economy and our future."
University of South Florida political professor Susan McManus said voters expect the campaigns to continue with Election Day so near. Both Obama and Romney have been sending their running mates and other surrogates to campaign events.
"It's really unrealistic, and I don't think the average American expects them to put their campaigns on hold," she said. "I'd have to say both of them have found the right balance so far."
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