Obama, Romney put aside campaign for storm relief - for now

KETTERING, Ohio Tue Oct 30, 2012 5:24pm EDT

1 of 9. U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about damage done by Hurricane Sandy at the National Red Cross Headquarters in Washington, October 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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KETTERING, Ohio (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney on Tuesday briefly put aside their fierce battle for the White House, as they avoided politics to focus on relief efforts after mammoth storm Sandy left millions of Americans struggling to recover.

With a week left in a deadlocked election race, Obama canceled campaign trips planned for Tuesday and Wednesday to stay in Washington and supervise storm recovery, while Romney held a storm relief event in the swing state of Ohio but ducked most political talk.

The campaign truce was likely to be short-lived.

Romney planned to hit the trail again for rallies in Florida on Wednesday, and Romney's running mate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, and Vice President Joe Biden also added new planned campaign stops as the race heads to a tense finish on November 6.

Obama on Wednesday will visit New Jersey, which along with New York City bore the brunt of the storm, although he was expected to return to campaigning on Thursday for the final sprint to Election Day.

Both candidates have been forced to walk a delicate line, trying to avoid appearing insensitive or crassly political after Sandy inflicted heavy property damage, killed at least 30 people and left millions on the eastern seaboard without power.

Obama held a video conference at the White House on Tuesday with top members of his emergency team and spoke to governors and other officials in storm-damaged areas before visiting the national headquarters of the American Red Cross, where he warned that the risks were "not yet over."

The president's crisis leadership got an endorsement from a surprising source: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican and prominent Romney backer who said Obama should get credit for expediting federal aid to the state.

"Cooperation from the president has been outstanding," Christie told CBS "This Morning," adding he had spoken to Obama three times, including during a midnight call. "He deserves great credit."

In Ohio, Romney struck a politics-neutral tone before helping load a rental truck with crates of water and canned goods to be sent to a distribution center in New Jersey.

"We have heavy hearts this morning with all the suffering going on in a major part of our country," Romney told several hundred people, many of whom came with grocery bags of canned goods and other items that will be shipped to the East Coast.

But politics were not far from the surface at Romney's event. A campaign video on the former Massachusetts governor's biography and family life was played to the crowd.

ROMNEY IGNORES FEMA QUESTIONS

Romney ignored reporters' questions about comments he made during the Republican primary season in which he said he would shift funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is heading relief operations, to the states.

Millions were left without power as Sandy rolled through election battlegrounds like North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire. The storm's effects were felt as far away as the swing states of Ohio and Wisconsin.

National polls show Obama and Romney in a dead heat, although Obama retains a slight advantage in the key swing states that will determine who gathers the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

Obama leads Romney by 47 percent to 46 percent, according to a Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll, but 53 percent of all registered voters predicted Obama would win the election.

Most of the campaigns' attention has been focused on eight or nine states, but Romney and his allies have launched new advertising drives in three others - Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Michigan - in a bid to expand the playing field.

The Romney campaign said the move was a sign of strength. "If the other side was on the move, they would be expanding into states that John McCain won in 2008; instead, they're fighting to maintain turf in traditionally Democratic states," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.

Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign took a different view, calling the expansion into new states "a decision made out of weakness, not strength."

"There is no Romney momentum in the battleground states, and the Romney campaign has found itself with a tremendously narrow and improbable path to 270 electoral votes," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement.

"Now, like Republicans did in 2008, they are throwing money at states where they never built an organization and have been losing for two years," Messina said.

The Obama campaign responded with its own ads in the three states, and dispatched former President Bill Clinton to Minnesota. Clinton will also make appearances on Tuesday in the swing state of Colorado.

Both campaigns continued pouring advertisements into the presidential battlegrounds, and focused on voter turnout efforts and getting supporters to the polls.

In Ohio, where one of every eight jobs is tied to the auto industry, Obama got some support in an ongoing spat with the Romney campaign about Romney's claim that Chrysler planned to move Jeep vehicle production out of the United States to China.

The chief executive of Chrysler, Sergio Marchionne, on Tuesday refuted Romney's statement, which has become a subject of dueling television ads between the Romney and Obama campaigns in Ohio.

Romney has tried to undercut Obama's decision to give the auto industry a federal bailout, a popular move in Ohio that has helped fuel the president's slight but steady advantage over Romney in the Midwestern state.

"I feel obliged to unambiguously restate our position: Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China," he told employees by email.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)

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