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Sounds of political silence in Sandy’s wake

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Amazing how an enormous natural disaster has a way of silencing the barbed language and personal attacks of a razor-close presidential race. Amazing how trivial those mean campaign ads look on TV, sandwiched between footage of wiped-out homes, debris and destruction. Amazing how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both found ways to turn the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy into a call for the nation to come together.

We’re not so naive as to suggest their actions aren’t, at least in part, politically motivated. Obama, no doubt, wants to milk this opportunity for all he can, to manage this disaster effectively before the cameras and to look presidential. It’s a role only he can play. No matter what Romney does, the Republican challenger knows he will be shunted aside in the news coverage.

To Romney’s credit, he’s not trying to manufacture a campaign moment out of this. He could have kept on politicking as usual, but good judgment is sometimes best demonstrated by knowing when to stand down. So Romney used Tuesday’s campaign time to organize a food drive and call for Red Cross donations. Of course, he did it in the crucial swing state of Ohio, which was hardly coincidental.

Meanwhile, one of Romney’s biggest Republican champions, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, made headlines by brushing aside Election Day concerns and praising Obama’s response to the devastation that has ravaged his state. He made clear, with trademark Christie bluntness, that this is no time for politics. On Wednesday, he punctuated that position by touring the disaster area with Obama aboard the Marine One helicopter.

The big question is: How long will both campaigns play nice? How long will they allow their better selves to dominate and suppress the urge to attack, malign, bluster and blow little issues out of proportion in a desperate attempt to gain media coverage in the precious remaining days before Tuesday’s election?

Obama knows there can’t be the slightest hint of comparison between his federal disaster-relief management and the dismal effort after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The longer that millions of Eastern Seaboard residents go without electricity, food and clean water, the more challenging it’ll be for Obama.

Likewise for Romney, the temptation will grow to pounce and criticize every misstep. He must weigh that against the high risk of appearing to use other people’s suffering for political gain.

For a while, at least, Americans can enjoy the sounds of near silence as two smart presidential candidates come to grips with the fact that neither is today’s big story, nor does he deserve to be.

Perhaps there’s a bigger lesson to be learned here — civility overtakes nastiness, and real concern for America’s welfare takes precedence over empty campaign slogans.

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