KETTERING, Ohio (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, blown off the campaign trail by Hurricane Sandy, drew a fine line between politicking and storm relief on Tuesday as the weather cast an unpredictable pall over the race with just a week to go until Election Day.
With President Barack Obama holed up in Washington monitoring relief efforts, Romney faced the challenge of trying to demonstrate his presidential credentials without appearing insensitive to the millions of Americans affected by the storm.
An event in Kettering, Ohio, that was originally intended as a campaign event featuring U.S. Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, was hastily converted into a “storm relief event,” with Romney making remarks urging Americans to show generosity in helping the East Coast.
He made no political attacks against the Democratic incumbent.
“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.
Romney, who is battling to win the key swing state of Ohio in the November 6 election, said he had spoken to some of the governors in the affected areas “and they talked about a lot of people having hard times.”
Sandy made landfall in New Jersey on Monday night, leaving behind a trail of flooded homes, toppled trees and downed power lines in the nation’s most densely populated region. The death toll has continued to rise, with reports of at least 30 people killed by the storm.
Looking at the various goods brought in by people, Romney said: “It’s part of the American spirit, the American way, to give to people who are in need and your generosity this morning touches my heart,” he said.
Politics were not far away at Romney’s Ohio event. A campaign video that focuses on Romney’s biography and family life was played to the crowd, and Randy Owen, the lead singer of the band Alabama, who was originally supposed to be a part of the rally, stayed to entertain.
But Romney stuck to the storm relief script. After his remarks, he and Ohio Senator Rob Portman helped load a rental truck with various crates of water and canned goods to be sent to a distribution center in New Jersey.
The storm, and Romney’s reaction, showed the difficulties in taking time off from the campaign trail in a race that is too close to call with only days remaining until millions of Americans cast their votes on November 6.
Romney scrambled to respond to the emerging natural disaster by canceling events in Wisconsin and Iowa on Monday night and Tuesday to avoid the appearance of campaigning while Americans suffered.
But the self-declared truce will soon expire. Romney is to stage three campaign events in Florida on Wednesday, and his vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, and his wife, Ann Romney, are getting back on the trail as well.
Romney refused to answer repeated questions about how he would handle the duties of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is funded by U.S. taxpayers and coordinates relief and recovery efforts in disaster zones.
Romney has made much during the campaign of cutting government spending and sending some of its programs back to the states for funding.
While Romney would not answer, a campaign spokeswoman, Amanda Henneberg, did. She said Romney believes states should be in charge of emergency management because they are in best position to aid people and direct aid where it is needed most. This would include help from the federal government and FEMA, she said.
“A Romney-Ryan administration will always ensure that disaster funding is there for those in need. Period,” she said.
And while the candidates themselves were off-line, the guerrilla war between the two camps festered as always.
Romney’s campaign announced plans to put up television advertising in Pennsylvania, a typically Democratic state where the Republican sees a potential opening despite Obama holding a small lead there.
“This is just the latest example of how the race is breaking to the advantage of Governor Romney,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “President Obama is playing defense in states that were once considered safely in his column.”
The Obama campaign dismissed the move as smacking of desperation.
Editing By Alistair Bell and David Brunnstrom