Mitt Romney today sought to strike a delicate balance between resuming what had been a hostile presidential campaign and showing sensitivity to the damage and death caused by Atlantic superstorm Sandy.
At his first official campaign rally since the storm hit, the Republican candidate took a softer approach in his stump speech, avoiding any direct mention of President Barack Obama. He cast himself as a bipartisan leader in a time of crisis as he looked beyond the Nov. 6 election.
“We come together at times like these,” he said in Tampa, Florida. “People coming together is what’s also going to happen, I believe, on Nov. 7th.”
Before Obama, 51, re-starts his campaigning tomorrow in Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado, he met today with workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington. He also flew to hard-hit New Jersey to survey damage with the state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, who has campaigned on Romney’s behalf and was the keynote speaker at the Republican nominating convention in August.
Romney made other stops in Florida today with former Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, before heading to Virginia and Ohio later this week.
“I don’t just talk about change,” Romney, 65, told the crowd in Tampa. “I actually have a plan to execute change and to make it happen.”
The former Massachusetts governor juggled requests for Red Cross donations with pleas for votes in the largest battleground state where voters can cast ballots early.
“Please make sure you go out and vote early,” he said at the end of his speech. He also called on his supporters to send money to relief agencies for “our friends in harm’s way.”
Still, the contentious tone of the campaign seeped into the event. As Romney pledged to work across the aisle to solve the country’s economic challenges, a man in the Tampa crowd shouted, “Fire Obama!”
In Coral Gables this afternoon, a series of Republican speakers assailed the president’s positions on foreign policy, federal spending, and the economy -- in English and Spanish.
“Basta ya,” Republican U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said, using a saying that translates as “enough is enough.”
The campaigning resumed as polls show the race narrowing in many of the most competitive states, mirroring a national trend in which several recent polls show the race tied or one candidate ahead by a single percentage point.
A poll released today in by the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, the state where the campaigns are competing the most aggressively, showed Obama backed by 48 percent of likely voters while Romney had the support of 46 percent. A CBS Times/New York Times/Quinnipiac University survey of battleground states showed Obama with a five-percentage-point lead in Ohio 50 percent to 45 percent, and Romney all but erasing deficits in Florida and Virginia.
A national daily tracking poll by ABC News and the Washington Post released tonight showed the two candidates deadlocked with 49 percent support each among likely voters. The poll also showed that 78 percent of all likely voters rated Obama’s response to superstorm Sandy as excellent or good.
In New Jersey, Obama appeared side-by-side with Christie on the airport tarmac and later at a community center in Brigantine that has been serving as a shelter for storm victims.
The two men praised each other.
“I want to let you know that your governor is working overtime” to get damage repaired, Obama said. He vowed the federal government will “be here for the long haul” and promised to make sure relief isn’t delayed.
Christie thanked Obama and said, “It’s really important to have the president of the United States acknowlege the kind of suffering that’s going on here in New Jersey and I appreciate it very much.”
Romney has no plans, as of now, to visit an area hit by the storm, spokesman Kevin Madden told reporters. He declined to evaluate how Obama has managed federal assistance to storm areas.
“The response is still going on so I’m not in a position to qualify the response by the federal government,” he said. The campaign is trying to “strike a positive tone” in the wake of the devastation from Sandy.
Romney’s team today sidestepped questions about the political consequences of Obama’s high-profile, post-storm role and Christie’s public embrace of him. Russ Schriefer, a top Romney adviser, said both men were just fulfilling their duties.
The storm has prompted fresh scrutiny of Romney’s views about the role of the federal government in disaster management.
Romney yesterday refused to answer repeated questions about whether he’d shift FEMA duties to the states or to private companies, as he said he would during the primary campaign.
“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” Romney said when asked about FEMA’s role at a June 2011 debate during the Republican primary campaign. “And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
Since the storm, Romney has attempted to clarify his position, stepping up his support for the agency.
“Governor Romney believes in a very efficient and effective disaster relief response, and he believes one of the ways to do that is put a premium on states and their efforts to respond to these disasters,” Madden said today. “But he does believe FEMA has a really important role there and that being a partner for these states is the best approach.”
While New Jersey is a safely Democratic state in the presidential race, Obama’s appearance with Christie and the Republican governor’s praise may resonate with voters in states that swing between the two parties in national elections.
The devastation caused by Sandy allowed Obama to promote indirectly the merits of government action over the smaller federal footprint that Romney has advocated.
In Tampa, ex-Governor Bush played down the federal government’s role in dealing with natural disasters.
“My experience in all this emergency response business is that it is the local level and the state level that really matters,” Bush said. “If they do their job right, the federal level works out pretty good.”
While Obama was off the campaign trail, former President Bill Clinton was appearing on his behalf with stops in Minnesota yesterday and in Iowa and Wisconsin today. He’s scheduled to stump for Obama tomorrow in Wisconsin and Ohio.
Obama’s political advisers sought to project confidence even with most national polls showing the race deadlocked.
“At this time next week, President Obama will have been re-elected for a second term,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said on a conference call.
“We have the map and they have the myths,” he said, referring to the fight for key states and assertions by the Romney camp that the race is turning the Republican’s way.
Messina pointed to the larger proportion of early votes registered Democrats have cast in some swing states, including Iowa and Nevada, and said Republicans would need to upwards of 60 percent of the remaining vote in those states for Romney to pull ahead.
In Iowa, registered Democrats have cast 43.7 percent of the early vote, followed by Republicans at 32 percent and independent voters at 24 percent. Almost 532,000 ballots had been cast there through yesterday, representing 34.5 percent of the total 2008 balloting.
“We feel very, very good about the numbers,” Obama senior political strategist David Axelrod.