The approach of what could be the most devastating storm in decades threw a surprise into the US presidential contest Saturday as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney hunted for votes -- and took swipes at each other -- amid fears of chaos ahead of the November 6 election.
The incumbent and his Republican rival campaigned at opposite ends of the eastern seaboard Saturday -- Obama in New Hampshire and his rival in Florida -- while their campaigns kept an eagle eye on Hurricane Sandy.
With the storm -- dubbed "Frankenstorm" -- now stalking the US East Coast, Romney canceled all his scheduled rallies in battleground Virginia Sunday to get out of the way of frantic preparations for the fierce weather system, instead returning to Ohio, another make or break swing state.
Vice President Joe Biden did the same on Saturday.
Obama, who made no changes in his campaign schedule, reviewed emergency preparations in a conference call with top domestic security and emergency assistance officials Saturday as he flew to New Hampshire, the White House said.
"This an example yet again of the president having to put his responsibilities as commander-in-chief and leader of the country first while at the same time he pursues his responsibilities as a candidate for re-election," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on the flight.
Currently a category one hurricane, Sandy was forecast to ride slowly up the Atlantic coastline, bringing heavy rains and gusting winds to the Carolinas, before making landfall early this week somewhere between Virginia and New Jersey.
Forecasters predict the storm will collide with a seasonal "nor'easter," creating a supercharged cold weather system that could burst through the Mid-Atlantic states as far inland as Ohio.
Huge tidal surges, power outages, inland flooding and even heavy snowfall could then be in store for the final, frantic week of the US election campaign, adding a nasty twist to what already is a neck and neck race.
Governors, anticipating the worst, declared states of emergency in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the US capital Washington and a coastal county in North Carolina.
Aside from the threat to tens of millions of residents, the storm could up-end election-related preparations across several states, interfere with early voting and cause problems at polling stations.
Both Obama and Romney were pushing supporters to vote early. So far, 10.5 million people have already cast their ballots, according to a count by experts at George Mason University near Washington.
That is equivalent to about eight percent of all votes cast in 2008, and analysts said the early voting was on track to beat the record set in the last presidential elections, when more than 30 percent of ballots were cast before election day.
Prospective voters have been deluged with calls from the rival campaigns, with 40 percent of voters in eight key battleground states contacted by the Obama camp and 35 percent by Romney's get-out-the-vote operation, according to a Washington Post/ABC News survey published Friday.
With just 10 days to go until Americans go to the polls, the candidates are readying cross-country travel blitzes to hammer home their well-worn messages.
"We face big challenges. We have big opportunities. And I know this is a big election," Romney told an enthusiastic crowd in Pensacola, Florida, a town with deep military connections.
"Four years ago, then candidate Barack Obama spoke about big things. But now he is reduced to talking about small things. He is shrinking from the magnitude of the times," said Romney, who has two more stops in Florida today, near Orlando and near Tampa.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio sounded confident about Romney's prospects in his state, telling reporters: "I feel great about Florida."
"We're getting close to the two minute warning, but we got to win the game, we got to finish the game," he said.
Obama, on the stump in New Hampshire, took a swipe at Romney's record as governor in the neighboring state of Massachusetts.
"Governor Romney has been out here making a lot of last-minute promises lately," told a crowd of 8,500 gathered in front of a school in the city of Nashua.
"Said he's all about fighting for the middle class. Said he would cut taxes for everybody," he said. "But the problem is, we heard those promises before."
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, meanwhile, accused Romney of engaging in "bluff and bluster," telling reporters traveling with the president: "Facts are not their forte."
Meanwhile, the government released data Friday showing economic growth picked up steam in the third quarter, reaching an annual pace of 2.0 percent.
The rate was a little better than had been expected but Romney called the news "discouraging," saying growth was less than half what had been predicted by the White House when it passed the 2009 stimulus bill.