WASHINGTON - Barack Obama put politics aside and Republican challenger Mitt Romney tempered his criticism of the president for three days as superstorm Sandy battered the U.S. East Coast, but both will dive back into the presidential campaign with gusto on Thursday, with just five days left until Election Day.
Obama and Romney are locked in a race so tight that both campaigns are predicting victory. However, the polls show Obama with a slight edge in nine key "battleground" states that are neither reliably Republican nor Democratic. The U.S. president is not elected according to the nationwide popular vote, but in state-by-state contests that make these states especially important in such a tight election.
The president's advisers insist his break from campaigning while managing the federal response to the superstorm had minimal impact on his standing. If anything, it gave Obama a chance to offer the type of comfort and command in a crisis that only a president can deliver.
The storm created headaches for Romney, diverting the public's attention away from the campaign as he was trying to build momentum.
Still, the Democratic campaign is seeking to make up for the lost time with a heavy travel itinerary in the coming days, including rallies Thursday in Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado.
The storm, named Sandy, devastated the New Jersey coast and inundated portions of New York City. More than 70 people were killed in the late season weather fury that raked much of the Atlantic seaboard before unleashing its full power on the most densely populated region of the United States. Sandy caused billions of dollars in damage, tens of thousands remained without power, streets were awash in flood waters, homes were destroyed and mass transit shut as subway tunnels flooded.
Obama spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said while the president remains focused on the storm recovery, the fact that the election takes place in five days is a "reality" and he will return to the trail to make the case to the American people on why they should return him to the White House for four more years.
The partisan sniping continued this week from the candidates' surrogates and their running mates. Much of it focused on Romney's new television and radio ads in critical Ohio, highly misleading spots that suggest automakers General Motors and Chrysler are adding jobs in China at the expense of workers in the Midwestern swing state. Vice-President Joe Biden said the spots were "one of the most flagrantly dishonest ads I can ever remember."
Obama's campaign planned to keep pressing its criticism of the ads as it seeks to block Romney's prospects for a breakthrough in Ohio, a state every Republican has needed to win the presidency.
The Republican ticket hasn't backed away from the ad. Running mate Paul Ryan said in a statement that "American taxpayers are on track to lose $25 billion as a result of President Obama's handling of the auto bailout, and GM and Chrysler are expanding their production overseas."
In fact, Chrysler is adding 1,100 jobs to its plant in Toledo. It's also adding production facilities in China as demand for cars there grows. Because of trade rules, it's easier for companies to build cars for the Chinese market in China. It's also more efficient. Japanese automakers, for example, have plants in the U.S. to meet American demand.
Romney was campaigning Thursday in Virginia, while Ryan was appearing at events in Nevada and Colorado.
Ahead of campaign events in Virginia, Romney released a Web video highlighting a decades-old barbecue chain in Richmond that's shutting its doors. "When President Obama took office there was a lot of hope that things were going to change. Well, he didn't change anything," a woman connected to the business says in the video.
Biden had two events scheduled in Iowa. Obama was starting his day in Green Bay, Wisconsin, making up an event that was cancelled earlier in the week because of the storm. He had a rally planned later in Las Vegas, as well as Boulder, Colorado, a heavily Democratic area.
Aides said Obama planned to mention the storm victims in his remarks.
More than 19 million people have already voted in the presidential, either by mail or in person. No votes will be counted until Nov. 6, but some key states are releasing the party affiliation of those who have voted.
Democrats have an edge in votes cast in Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina and Ohio. Republicans have an advantage in Colorado.