Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talks with flood victims… (Frederic J. Brown, AFP/Getty…)
JEAN LAFITTE, La. — The day after accepting the Republican Party's presidential nomination, Mitt Romney abruptly canceled a campaign appearance in a crucial swing state Friday to tour a flood-ravaged area of the Louisiana bayou near New Orleans, acknowledging the damage caused by Hurricane Isaac.
The hurricane disrupted the party's national convention in Tampa, Fla., forcing the cancellation of the first day and causing officials to worry about the message it would send to celebrate the GOP ticket while the storm slammed into New Orleans almost seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina.
"I'm here to learn and obviously to draw some attention to what's going on here so that people around the country know that people down here need help," Romney told Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, both Republicans, in an informal roadside conversation.
President Obama scuttled a speech planned for a Labor Day festival on Monday in Cleveland to arrange a visit to Louisiana. On Friday, though, Obama flew to Ft. Bliss, Texas, to highlight one of the signature achievements of his presidency: the end of the Iraq war.
He marked the two-year anniversary of the end of combat missions, speaking in an airplane hangar with soldiers standing on an Apache helicopter and two M1 Abrams tanks. Obama's remarks — and the striking stagecraft —were highlighted as his campaign tried to change the focus from the grim picture of his presidency presented during the Republican National Convention to a topic that it views as an overlooked bright spot.
Obama's foreign policy generally wins high marks with voters, even if it is not foremost on their minds. Romney has typically avoided much discussion on foreign policy. He spent just two minutes of his 37-minute acceptance speech on it and did not mention the war in Afghanistan.
"We're winding down a decade of war, we're destroying terrorist networks that attacked us and we've restored American leadership," Obama said, dismissing charges that he has weakened U.S. standing in the world. "If you hear anyone trying to say that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, don't you believe it, because here's the truth: Our alliances have never been stronger."
Before heading to Louisiana, Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, held a rally in Lakeland, Fla., a city on the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando where many of Florida's swing voters live. Romney reprised his critique of Obama's economic record and asked his supporters to help him win Florida.
"For that to happen, you're going to have to go out and find a person or two who voted for Barack Obama," he said. "I know they're here. They're not as visible as they used to be. You can see some of the glue on the back of their bumper sticker where it used to be, and so you can find them. But you find them and convince them to get on our team and to help us, because we want to be held accountable for the promises we made last night and the night before."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president's decision to travel to Louisiana was made before Romney announced his visit. Late Friday, the White House also announced that Obama had hosted a conference call to brief local parish presidents and mayors on the federal support available.
Carney declined to say whether the White House thought Romney's trip would be a distraction from relief efforts. "I just don't have any way to assess that," he said.
But Romney's drop-in triggered a harsh reaction from Democrats in Congress, who charged that Ryan's proposed federal budget would cut money for response to disasters such as Hurricane Isaac. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said in a statement: "It is the height of hypocrisy for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to make a pretense of showing sympathy for the victims of Hurricane Isaac when their policies would leave those affected by this disaster stranded and on their own."
Ryan continued on to a Friday afternoon rally at the airport in Richmond, Va., without Romney. Sleeves rolled up, Ryan spoke to a crowd standing on the sizzling tarmac.
"We are at the proverbial fork in the road. We've got a choice of two futures," he said, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor standing behind him. "And what you need in a moment like this, when our economy is in doubt, when a debt crisis looms on our horizon like it's plaguing Europe, when we know without a shadow of a doubt that our children are going to get a diminished future if we stay on the current path — moments like this, you need leadership, you need principled leaders. Guess what? That's exactly what Mitt Romney is."
In Louisiana, Romney's motorcade made its way through flooded lower-income and middle-income neighborhoods where extensive damage was evident. Along a row of houses on stilts, some residents were on porches and balconies. Many waved. "We need Mitt Romney," one woman shouted.
Romney met with state and local officials, first responders and National Guard troops in fatigues and boots. In Jean Lafitte, a fishing town, he spoke with three women who were barefoot and wearing T-shirts and shorts in a parking lot outside a post office.
Jodie Chiarello, 42, said her home was submerged to the rooftop. She said she told Romney she wanted the federal government to help the victims and do more to prevent flooding.
"He said that he was going to do the best that he could for us," she said.
Chiarello, a Republican who works in a grocery store bakery, said she would probably vote for Romney. She said she appreciated his visit. "I thought he'd be more like a politician, but it was more understanding and caring," she said.
Reston reported from Jean Lafitte and Hennessey from Ft. Bliss.