The delicate dance of campaigning during the storm relief effort

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As millions of Americans struggle to recover from the devastating impact of Sandy, President Obama and Governor Romney shifted gears to focus on relief efforts. It took a catastrophic storm like Sandy to make the candidates to halt their final campaign pushes one week before Election Day.

Both Obama and Romney are walking a fine line during this highly unique situation: If they come off too eager to get back into politics mode, they risk looking cold and insensitive to those affected by the deadly storm;  if they seem weak or unresponsive, they appear un-presidential in a crisis; and if they don’t keep up on the campaign trail, they could lose their momentum in a deadlocked race.

President Obama managed wide-spread relief efforts from Washington and plans to tour the storm-battered New Jersey coastline on Wednesday with Governor Chris Christie, who has praised his leadership in this disaster.

Mitt Romney appeared at a “storm relief event” in the battleground state of Ohio alongside former NASCAR star Richard Petty and Alabama lead singer Randy Owen, collecting canned goods and supplies to send to storm victims. He urged Americans to help those in need and didn’t criticize the president.

On The Last Word, msnbc’s Krystall Ball suggested the Romney campaign can’t afford to not be campaigning right now. “They’re looking at the numbers in Ohio and looking at the numbers in Virginia and Iowa and Wisconsin, and still have to move the needle. They have to do something—they can’t just go totally dark,” said Ball.

While visiting Ohio, Romney dodged questions regarding FEMA funding from reporters, with good reason. During the Republican primaries, Romney declared he would dismantle the Federal Emergency Management Agency, giving states back the responsibility of managing their own disaster relief efforts, or handing off that role to the private sector. That statement could haunt Romney in the Hurricane Sandy aftermath, as many home and business owners on the East Coast could be applying for federal disaster relief aid. However, don’t expect the Obama campaign to call him out this close to the election.

“If there was at least a month left in the campaign, I have no doubt that Team Obama would have an ad out” hitting Romney on his FEMA response,” msnbc’s Lawrence O’Donnell said on Monday’s The Last Word. “But now, with the election coming on Tuesday, it’s very difficult to see how Team Obama cuts that ad and gets it out there in a way that people would consider not to be overly exploiting the situation.”

Fellow msnbc host Steve Kornacki agreed that such an attack line, whether it came from the Obama campaign directly or a pro-Obama Super PAC, could easily backfire. This would “give Romney’s campaign an opportunity to get back in the news in a way they want to be. ‘How dare they, just two days after this disaster, make this a political issue,’” he said.

Both candidates might need to ride out the storm, figuratively speaking, for the next few days, rather than risk political destruction of their own making.

“There’s nothing proactively right now that Romney can do to make up the points that he trails in Ohio, Wisconsin and those states,” said Kornacki. “But if, for some reason, Obama’s response to this is seen as bungled or botched, or if he’s seen politicizing it for some reason, then I think there’s an opportunity there for Romney to score.”

Before the storm, Obama said he’s “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.” He added, “the election will take care of itself next week.”

The delicate dance of campaigning during the storm relief effort

Updated