Is Hurricane Sandy a Gale-Force October Surprise?

Hurricane Sandy will go down in history not just as the largest Atlantic storm to hit the United States, but also as the October surprise that no political operative could orchestrate -- or predict.

Both presidential campaigns said they were devoted to leaving the politics out of the storm, as operatives for both accused the other campaign of politicking. Both suspended overt campaigning, with President Obama returning to the White House but using former President Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden on the trail, and Mitt Romney turning his Ohio rally today into a food drive for hurricane relief. Phone banking and ad buys continued as usual.

But as the winds died down on the Eastern seaboard and the downpours turned to occasional showers, there was no denying that the deadly, devastating storm would leave its mark on the election landscape as well.

One of the initial concerns was about how the hurricane warnings and precautions would affect early voting. As Sandy churned across the northeast and took out power in nearly 8 million households, concern turned to whether voting offices and equipment would be up and running as utility crews gave estimates of 7 to 10 days to restore juice in hard-hit areas. White House press secretary Jay Carney was even asked at Monday's briefing whether Obama was pondering a way to alter the election schedule.

The storm has even interrupted daily tracking polls by which campaigns and pundits live and breathe, as Gallup announced it would follow Monday's poll freeze with another poll-less day due to Sandy.

But when is it appropriate for candidates to return to targeted campaigning in crucial swing states? How might the storm affect the vote by sweeping all other issues off the front page? For all the cloud cover of the hurricane, how much does it turn the presidential race into a contest of optics?

"My message to the federal government: no bureaucracy; no red tape; get resources where they're needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration, because the recovery process obviously in a place like New Jersey is going to take a significant amount of time," Obama said in a trip to the American Red Cross today. "The recovery process in lower Manhattan is going to take a lot of time."

Obama was praised for that recovery assistance, advanced by declaring New Jersey a major disaster area, repeatedly today by a Republican governor who has been stumping for Romney. New Jersey's Chris Christie said the president "has been incredibly supportive and helpful to our state and not once did he bring up the election."

When asked on Fox News this morning whether Romney would come to New Jersey to tour storm damage with the governor, Christie replied, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested.”

“I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff," he added. "I have a job to do."

As politics invariably creep in to most disasters, Obama will get valuable optics in the last days before the election when he stands side by side with Christie in touring the hurricane devastation.

"Tomorrow afternoon, the President will travel to New Jersey where he will join Governor Christie in viewing the storm damage, talking with citizens who are recovering from the storm and thanking first responders who put their lives at risk to protect their communities," Carney, who didn't hold a press briefing today, announced in a statement this afternoon.

Romney is expected to attend a campaign event with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in Tampa tomorrow. He told the Ohio crowd today that he'd spoken with some governors whose states were affected by the storm, but there was no update on whether he'd visit any of those states after Tampa.