KETTERING, Ohio (AP) — Superstorm Sandy is upending the final week of the presidential race, with President Barack Obama calling off another campaign day to tour ravaged New Jersey and Republican Mitt Romney struggling to strike the right tone as he tries to close the deal with voters.
The White House announced Tuesday that Obama will not go ahead with a Wednesday campaign swing through Ohio and later said he would tour damage in New Jersey. He plans to remain in Washington to monitor recovery efforts for the storm that practically shut down New York City and spread damage across the East Coast.
Obama visited the American Red Cross near the White House on Tuesday to encourage donations and warned the storm was not done making its impact. He tried to show leadership in only the way a president can, saying he told federal authorities to cut through all red tape to get help to affected areas. "There is no excuse for inaction," he said.
Obama said he had a conference call with affected governors and mayors told them if issues arise "they can call me personally at the White House."
Romney and running mate Paul Ryan initially announced they were canceling events out of sensitivity for the millions of Americans in Sandy's path. But with only a week left to try to toss Obama from office, the GOP campaign was back on Tuesday with events in the critical Midwestern swing states of Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, albeit with changes to the program.
"We have heavy hearts, as you know, with all the suffering going on, in a major part of our country," Romney said before helping collect food donations for relief efforts. "A lot of people hurting this morning, they were hurting last night. And the storm goes on."
Romney spoke for less than five minutes and avoided politics at what his campaign billed as a "storm relief event" in the same Ohio gymnasium as his previously scheduled political rally and with the same entertainment from country music singer Randy Owen. The event was moved up four hours and there were none of the usual attacks on the president, who was at the White House overseeing the response.
Effusive praise for Obama's leadership came in Tuesday from a surprising source — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who has been campaigning for Romney across the country and who is a pointed Obama critic. He said in a series of morning television show interviews that Obama was in touch throughout the night as the storm struck New Jersey, including a call at midnight, and effectively expedited much-needed disaster relief.
"The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit," Christie told MSNBC's "Morning Joe." ''I've been on the phone with him, like I said, yesterday personally three times. He gave me his number at the White House, told me to call him if I need anything, and he absolutely means it. It's been very good working with the president."
The White House released a photo of the president receiving an update on the response from the Situation Room. Vice President Joe Biden participated in the video-conference from Ohio, where he spent part of the day holding up in a Columbus hotel before flying to Florida to resume campaign events Wednesday.
As he boarded his plane, Biden said it was unclear when Obama would return to campaigning and brushed off a question about the impact on the election. "Honest to God, I don't think anyone's thought about that," Biden said.
The president's campaign also tried to rise above the political fray in an email to supporters asking for donation to the Red Cross. "Soon enough we'll need to get back to work on the most important campaign of our lifetime," wrote campaign manager Jim Messina. "But the most important thing at this moment is that you and your loved ones are staying safe, and that the rest of us do what we can to help speed the recovery."
Millions were left without power as the deadly storm whipped its way through presidential battlegrounds like North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire and sprawled as far as the Great Lakes, where gales threatened Ohio's and Wisconsin's lakeside regions.
Some election centers in the affected states were shut down, but early voting continued in areas outside Sandy's path. Ryan sent an email to supporters in Ohio Tuesday, asking them to take advantage of early voting "to help keep our momentum going."
Romney helped collect grocery bags of donations from lined-up supporters after his brief remarks in Ohio, then headed outside to load bottled water, boxes of diapers and pallets of canned goods on a rented truck for delivery.
Romney refused to answer repeated shouted questions from reporters about how he would run the Federal Emergency Management Agency as president. He said during the Republican primary race that he wants to return control of some federal functions to the states.
Asked whether Romney favors additional federal aid to help recover and rebuild from Sandy, Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg responded: "A Romney-Ryan administration will always ensure that disaster funding is there for those in need. Period."
The storm wasn't entirely off limits from politics. Campaigning on Obama's behalf in Minnesota, former President Bill Clinton resurrected a line from Romney's GOP convention speech to suggest that he was flippant about Obama's advocacy of climate change legislation.
At the late August convention, Romney ridiculed Obama as someone who "promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise ... is to help you and your family."
"In my part of America, we would have liked if someone had done that yesterday," Clinton said, noting how oceanfront cities are coping with rising waters more frequently.
While officials in Obama's Chicago-based campaign had hoped he would be in battleground states every day this week, they said they weren't losing any ground by having him in Washington. Obama was still getting local media coverage because of his work on the storm. And aides said Clinton's active campaign schedule this week was helping to boost Democratic voter enthusiasm.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were no plans to cancel Obama's campaign rallies Thursday in Nevada, Colorado, and Ohio, though officials said they continued to monitor the storm. The president may try to make up for lost time by adding more events to an already busy schedule this weekend and into next week, but those plans were still being finalized.
Romney planned to resume an aggressive campaign schedule beginning Wednesday, with three events in Florida with former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. He planned to return to Virginia Thursday, after canceling events there Sunday before the storm.
Aides say they are reviewing his plans on almost an hourly basis, but expect the campaign to get back to normal. They are still considering a plan to send Romney to New Jersey later in the week, where he could meet with victims and gauge the storm damage with Christie. The move would follow the path Romney took after Hurricane Isaac threatened the Republican National Convention, when he toured storm damage in Louisiana with Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, also a supporter.
At the same time, Romney aides insist they are serious about expanding their efforts in battleground states largely considered safe territory for Democrats.
The campaign is launching a statewide advertising push in Pennsylvania, which aides say is in play, although Romney had no plans to visit the state. Ryan planned to campaign across his home state of Wisconsin in an attempt to expand the playing field, before heading to battleground Colorado Thursday. The campaign also invited local media to cover Ryan's plane landing Tuesday over the state border in Minnesota, which has been in the Democratic column since 1976.
The Romney camp also announced that a political rally in Des Moines, Iowa, would go on at the same time as previously scheduled Tuesday night, with Ann Romney filling in for her husband as the headliner. Earlier she visited a campaign office in Allouez, Wis., and urged donations to the Red Cross while describing what a compassionate president her husband would be. "I know the character of this man. I know he is such a good person," she said.
Ryan was slated to drop by campaign offices in his home state of Wisconsin on Tuesday to thank the volunteers helping to collect relief supplies.
Ryan spokesman Michael Steel told reporters that the congressman participated in separate videoconference town halls with voters in Iowa, Florida and Ohio. Reporters were not advised of the calls and were not invited to listen.
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Dayton, Ohio, Philip Elliott in Janesville, Wis., Brian Bakst in Minneapolis, Carrie Antlfinger in Allouez, Wis., Matthew Daly and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Ken Thomas, Julie Pace and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.
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