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Republicans keep focus on Libya storm, as Sandy scrambles campaign plans

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Oct. 27, 2012: President Obama waves to supporters at a campaign event in Nashua, N.H. (AP)

With Hurricane Sandy scrambling presidential campaign plans for both candidates, Republicans said Sunday the potentially historic storm will have some impact on Election Day – but they also sought to keep focus on the other storm in Washington, over the deadly Libya attack.

President Obama canceled appearances in Northern Virginia on Monday and in Colorado on Tuesday to monitor the massive storm, which, according to the most recent models, is expected to make landfall along the mid-Atlantic coast Monday evening.

The White House said that the president, after attending church, will visit the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA headquarters.

The Romney campaign, too, was canceling some plans, while the storm threatened to have an impact on early voting turnout roughly one week before Election Day

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said Sunday he didn’t know exactly how the storm would impact the campaigns. But while he and other lawmakers on Capitol Hill are keeping a close eye on it, the senator continued to press for answers on Libya – not allowing the storm to overshadow the investigation into the first deadly attack on a U.S. ambassador in decades.

Obama’s handling of that attack, he said, is a “debacle.”

“This is now the worst coverup or incompetence I have ever observed in my life,” McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on Sept. 16 said on five Sunday talk shows the attacks that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was not pre-planned and was part of a “spontaneous” response to an anti-Islam film.  

The administration has since said the first attack on the consulate that killed Stevens and another diplomat, then the attack on a nearby CIA annex that killed two U.S. operatives, was a terror attack.

Sources have told Fox News that CIA officers were twice told to stand down when they asked to go to the consulate to help, though they later went anyway. Fox News has learned that a subsequent request by the CIA annex for backup was denied.

The CIA and the Defense Department denied the accusations.

“I don’t expect (the president) to know about movements, but he should have known about the deteriorating situation,” said McCain, also the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCain added he was sure the president will “conduct himself as commander in chief” during the storm.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former Obama White House chief of staff, told CBS that Rice was “working on the intelligence that was out there.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Saturday that Obama’s handling of both situations is “an example, yet again, of the president having to put his responsibilities as commander in chief and as leader of the country first, while at the same time he pursues his responsibilities as a candidate for re-election,"

Still, ripping up Obama's strategically planned travel schedule was something his Chicago-based campaign was loath to do unless absolutely necessary.

In the tight race, the candidates have few opportunities left to blitz through the most competitive states, trying to build momentum and make a final pitch to undecided voters.

The president's handling of the storm could sway those late-breaking voters. If Obama is perceived as a strong leader who shows command in a crisis, some undecided voters may be compelled to back the president. But a botched response or a sense that he's putting politics over public safety could weaken his support at a point in the race where there's little chance to reverse course.

Obama advisers say they've learned the lessons from President George W. Bush's widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush was seen as ineffective and out of touch, and his presidency never recovered.

“You notice he’s canceling his trips over the hurricane, not Benghazi,” former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on ABC’s “This Week.”

At least four battleground states are likely to be hit by the storm: New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

Obama plans to spend every day between now and Nov. 6 on the road in most of those states and others, though his schedule does call for him to be back in Washington some nights.

In canceling Obama's event Monday in Virginia, aides also considered the optics of urging thousands of people to venture out to a political rally in the midst of a raging storm.

Still, it was clear Obama's team was working hard to ensure that the president could keep campaigning as long as possible before he was needed back in Washington.

His departure for Florida, where he'll hold an event with Bill Clinton, was moved up from Monday morning to Sunday night in order to get ahead of the storm. Even though Monday's late event in Virginia was scrapped, Obama and Clinton planned to squeeze in an evening rally in Youngstown, Ohio, before the president was to return to the White House.

Romney canceled three events in Virginia on Sunday and is instead campaigning with running mate Paul Ryan in Ohio.

If bad weather keeps people in hard-hit battleground states from going to the polls, it could mess up the campaigns' carefully crafted get-out-the-vote efforts.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Democratic ticket was urging people to vote early when they can, especially if it helps them get to the polls before the storm.

"Safety comes first," she said. "And that's the case with early voting as well."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.