Obama nixes Orlando rally, as Sandy forces changes in campaign plans

President Obama skipped his scheduled campaign rally in Orlando Monday morning in order to head back to Washington, in the latest change of plans for the presidential candidates due to Hurricane Sandy.

The Romney campaign has also cancelled a Tuesday night rally in Milford, N.H., with the Republican presidential nominee and Monday events for his wife, Ann Romney.

Obama was returning to Washington to monitor storm preparations and response after touching down in the Sunshine State the evening before. The president squeezed in a visit to his Orlando regional headquarters Sunday night, but was planning to hold a video-teleconference on the storm in the Situation Room upon returning to the White House Monday.

"The president will return to the White House to monitor the preparations for and early response to Hurricane Sandy," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a brief statement. The president also cancelled a campaign event set for Tuesday in Green Bay, Wis.

While the president is balancing his White House duties with his campaign schedule, both candidates are keeping a watchful eye on the storm. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns were suspending fundraising emails Monday to New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia -- all expected to be hit by the storm's high winds and heavy rains.

"The top priority is the safety and security of people who may be in harm's way," senior Romney campaign adviser Kevin Madden said Sunday. "So we'll have to monitor the storm and make sure that we see if we need to make any adjustments but it's hard to predict at this point."

Meanwhile, early voting in both Maryland and the District of Columbia was suspended Monday.

The storm is expected to arrive Monday, eight days before the Nov. 6 election, as Romney and Obama frantically try to close the deal with voters in a race that is essentially too close to call.

Mindful of his narrow path to the requisite 270 electoral votes, Romney is now considering an attempt to expand his map by going into traditionally left-leaning Minnesota.

Obama now must juggle the responsibilities of being commander in chief and leading his re-election campaign. On Sunday, the president visited the Federal Emergency Management Headquarters, as the agency begins to help with state- and local-level preparedness efforts.

"Anything they need, we will be there," said the president, attempting to demonstrate steady leadership in the face of crisis and knowing an ineffective administration response could hurt his presidency and re-election efforts.

He canceled campaign stops Monday in Virginia and Tuesday in Colorado as well to monitor the storm. An event in Youngstown, Ohio, on Tuesday with former President Clinton will be moved forward and will include Vice President Joe Biden.

Obama is scheduled Thursday to swing through Springfield, Ohio; Boulder, Colo.; and Las Vegas.

Romney nixed three stops in up-for-grabs Virginia on Sunday, opting instead to campaign with running mate Paul Ryan in Ohio before heading Monday to Wisconsin, where Romney has chipped away at Obama's lead.

"Let's today when we get home put in our prayers the people who are in the East Coast in the wake of this big storm that's coming," Ryan said in Celina, Ohio.

Biden canceled a Monday event in New Hampshire and instead headed to Ohio.

He visited a campaign headquarters in Manchester before departing the state and saying to volunteers: “I  hope it is not going to affect voters on election day."

Romney campaign staffers planned to collect supplies for Virginia storm victims, and a Republican Party spokesman said Romney's campaign bus would be used for relief efforts throughout the East Coast.

The bad weather could hinder early voting and get-out-the-vote efforts.

"Obviously, we want unfettered access to the polls, because we think the more people that come out, the better we're going to do," said David Axelrod, a top adviser to Obama's campaign. "To the extent that it makes it harder, that's a source of concern."

In Virginia, one of the most competitive states in the race, election officials eased absentee voting requirements for those affected by the storm.

“The state board of elections is already planning for extended hours in advance for absentee voting, and it's now a priority, moved up to the same level as hospitals and police stations to have power restored," said Gov. Bob McDonnell, a top Romney ally.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner told “Fox News Sunday” that “the storm will throw havoc into the race, but the president will carry the state.”

An averaging of polls by the website RealClearPolitics has Romney and Obama in a tie in Virginia.

In Maryland, Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley cancelled early voting Monday. However, the decision should have no impact on the race because Obama is expected to easily win the Democratic-leaning state.

Getting voters to the polls -- whether early or on Election Day -- is one of the few elements of the race still in the candidates' control. Though Romney and Obama are in a close contest for the popular vote, the president continues to have the upper hand in the most contested states -- Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, the GOP chairman, pointed to recent gains for Romney that have lifted him to a virtual tie in most national polls. "The challenger always wins in a tie race," he said.

With time running out, both campaigns appeared to be fine-tuning their map of the states where they're campaigning the hardest.

A senior Republican official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to disclose private deliberations, said Sunday that the Romney team was seriously discussing sending Romney, Ryan or both to Minnesota during the final week. The state hasn't gone Republican in the presidential race since 1972, but recent polling shows a tighter race there than most anticipated.

In a flashback to the 2008 race, Obama's campaign announced that Biden will campaign Thursday in Pennsylvania, reprising a visit to his hometown of Scranton that he made during the final week four years ago.

Pennsylvania, too, has been Democratic territory in recent years, but Romney has continued to contest the state with an advertising assist from the Republican Party.

Axelrod, Priebus and McDonnell spoke on CNN's "State of the Union."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.