Washington: President Barack Obama planned to tour superstorm Sandy’s debris field and Mitt Romney plotted a return to campaigning Tuesday, as high-stakes politics stirred back to life a week from election day.
During an unprecedented 24-hour truce so close to a US presidential vote, the campaigns assessed the storm aftermath and how to squeeze the best use from fast dwindling days left in a race either man could still win.
The storm — which killed at least 35 people in the United States and Canada, swamped homes on the eastern seaboard and sent floodwaters gushing through lower Manhattan — muffled campaign trail rhetoric and jumbled political battle lines.
Obama was in presidential mode Tuesday, firing off orders to government emergency chiefs, telling victims that America found their plight “heartbreaking” and affecting not to notice the looming November 6 poll.
But his trip to New Jersey Wednesday and meeting with Governor Chris Christie — a Republican Romney backer who has poured praise on the president’s handling of the disaster — will take place in a highly political context.
Romney meanwhile concluded that in such a tight race, he could not afford another day watching Obama dominate the headlines, announcing plans for a three-event tour of tightening battleground Florida — which he must win.
Still, Obama will still control the media narrative on Wednesday as he picks through wreckage and consoles storm victims alongside a key Republican, as Romney plays the grubbier game of campaign politics in sunny Florida.
The no-nonsense Christie is a frequent Obama critic and was playing the same talismanic role and raising his own profile while managing disaster as New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani played in the September 11 attacks in 2001.
In one aside on Tuesday which likely pleased the Obama camp, Christie snapped at a Fox News interviewer when asked if Romney would get a disaster photo-op.
“If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me,” said Christie, often mentioned as a future White House hopeful.
Though the principals were off stage and the political heat was turned down, the campaigns did trade punches, with each side accusing the other of desperation as they sought to lock in key states on the electoral map.
Obama took full advantage of the tools of the presidency as he projected a sense of authority and organization, marshalling the federal government emergency effort and empathizing with millions in the storm’s path.
“Do not figure out why we can’t do something. I want you to figure out how we do something,” Obama said he told federal workers, after a visit to the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington.
“I want you to cut through red tape, I want you to cut through bureaucracy, there is no excuse for inaction at this point.”
Obama’s response to the storm, which roared ashore as a hurricane on Monday, could help his approval ratings, but both sides believe there are few undecided voters left, so it was unclear whether it would actually shift votes.
While the US media establishment is based on the East Coast and is fixated on the storm, swing states like Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and even Virginia where the election will be won and lost, escaped Sandy’s worst wrath.
But Romney will still face a test of tone Wednesday in Florida, and must decide whether to soften negative attacks on Obama to avoid being seen as a political opportunist.
The Republican has already been accused of muscling in on tragedy for political gain — over the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi last month — and so cannot afford missteps seen as motivated by politics.
Romney also faced new scrutiny Tuesday after a comment in a 2011 Republican primary debate that he would funnel money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency back to the states and the private sector.
He repeatedly ignored questions from reporters Tuesday over whether he would abolish FEMA.
The agency was vilified following the botched handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 by then president George W. Bush, but has since been overhauled by Obama and has run smoothly in subsequent emergencies.
With only five days of campaigning left before he asks voters for a second term, Obama will be expected to turn his focus back to politics on Thursday, though no announcements have yet been made by his campaign.
Electioneering did take place at a lower level Tuesday.
Former president Bill Clinton was in Colorado and Minnesota stumping for Obama as part of a tour of key electoral territory, and early voting was continuing in states unaffected by the storm.
Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams said Clinton’s presence in Minnesota, which is seen as a safe Democratic state, was a sign Obama was playing “defense.”
“On November 6, voters across the country will choose his positive agenda over President Obama’s increasingly desperate attacks,” Williams said.
The Obama campaign meanwhile mocked Romney’s decision to air new ads in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan as a sign of “weakness,” saying he had concluded he had no path to victory through swing states.
“The president is leading or tied in every battleground state across the country, and he leads early voting in every state across the country,” said Obama campaign chief Jim Messina.
“Governor Romney has not been able to put away a single battleground state.”
Romney leads by a few points in some national polls of the popular vote, but Obama is clinging to a slim advantage in the state-by-state race to 270 electoral votes needed to secure the White House.