WASHINGTON - Only days before the presidential election, Superstorm Sandy handed President Obama an unanticipated spotlight in which to act as commander-in-chief. It also framed with particular clarity the basic question of the campaign: What should be the rightful role and limits of the federal government?
For critical days, Obama swiftly and decisively seized -- and dramatized -- his national leadership responsibility, eclipsing challenger Mitt Romney. The Republican nominee's continued campaigning in storm-free Florida provided an unfavorable contrast in today's world of split-screen television.
The Romney camp's decision to turn a planned campaign rally into a food donation relief effort -- reportedly with the campaign buying and supplying attendees with goods to be handed to Romney as the cameras rolled -- was particularly clumsy. What the responders, including the Red Cross, said they needed was money, not food that had to be sorted and distributed.
At the same time, Obama was touring the Atlantic coastline disaster in New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a prime and outspoken Romney surrogate, basking in Christie's praise for the president's cooperation. In clear sight was the bipartisan spirit so absent in the last four years, largely because of Republican congressional obstructionism.
Whether Sandy's intrusion on the campaign had a deleterious impact on early voting, on which the Obama forces were heavily depending, will only be sorted out when the election results are in on Tuesday -- or possibly later, as in the 2000 election.
In any event, the whole destructive experience of a superstorm hitting a heavily populated region of the country that has usually escaped such damage rekindled the debate over the role of the federal government.
On the surface, it was easy for commentators to draw a comparison between Obama's conduct and that of his Republican predecessor at the start of Hurricane Katrina, which decimated New Orleans in 2005. Rather than making any "Heck of a job, Brownie" misplaced praise, Obama projected an appropriately engaged demeanor that drew Christie's approval.
Beyond that, the Sandy disaster provided a timely framework for Obama's we're-all-in-this-together pitch for collective community action in times of domestic crisis. The surfacing in the news media of Romney's year-old debate comment that the states should bear more responsibility for relief efforts, and the suggestion that the private sector could even take them over, had the Romney camp scampering for cover.
All through the Republican primaries this year, Romney intentionally and conspicuously lurched to the right to assuage critical or just doubting conservatives about his "severely conservative" credentials. Now, at the campaign's eleventh hour, as he has busied himself reverting to moderate Massachusetts Mitt to court independent and undecided voters, circumstances have put the rule of activist federal government front and center again.
Romney's post-Sandy demeanor risks casting him as a me-too candidate, in the same way his rush in the final debate with Obama to embrace many of the same foreign-policy positions of this opponent sought to blur distinctions and calm voter concerns that a Romney presidency might augur a return to Dubya's reckless adventurism.
In the end, this year's October Surprise was not any concocted political event or initiative, but instead an uninvited act of nature that incalculably complicated what polls told us was an uncommonly close election.
Both nominees spent much of the fall campaign calling this election a referendum on how involved Americans want their federal leaders to be in the conduct of their daily lives. Sandy provided a pertinent test of what many on one side regard unwarranted intrusion -- except of course, in times of emergency.
In reading the tea leaves for clues on Tuesday's outcome, there will be an abundance of other factors, positions taken or avoided, as well as how Sandy affected voter turnout in the critical swing states, most not hit hard by the superstorm. But if Obama wins and Romney loses, how this crisis reinforced the argument for hands-on government will certainly merit strong consideration.