Mitt Romney speaks at a rally at Metropolitan Park in Jacksonville, Fla.… (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)
BRIGANTINE, N.J. — As relief workers began clearing up the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama and Mitt Romney avoided overt partisan politics Wednesday. But with a mere six days to go before election day, and early voting underway across the nation, it was impossible to view the men's actions without a political lens.
Obama traveled to New Jersey to survey damage and appear alongside Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is among Romney's highest-profile surrogates and who typically offers scathing criticism of the president.
They shook hands warmly and took a helicopter tour of the damage before visiting a shelter in Brigantine, where they lauded each other. Christie said Obama "means it" when he says he's working hard for the victims of the storm, and praised the president for their "great working relationship" and for the "personal concern and compassion" Obama had shown for residents.
Obama assured the crowd that Christie was "working overtime" for them, saying he was at "the top of my list" of people to thank for being "responsive" and "aggressive in making sure that the state got out in front of this incredible storm."
A spokesman for the president said the visit had nothing to do with politics, but the visuals that dominated nightly newscasts were of Obama working with a Republican governor and a reminder of the role of federal government at times of crises.
"We face hard times and we get back up; the reason we get back up is we look out for each other and don't leave anyone behind," Obama said in remarks after a tour of some of the damage.
Romney sought to clarify comments he had made last year that suggested the Federal Emergency Management Agency ought to be handed over to the states or possibly privatized.
"I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters," he said in a statement released Wednesday morning. "As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters."
The GOP nominee, who had stopped stumping for votes as the storm bore down on the Eastern Seaboard, returned to the campaign trail Wednesday, holding three rallies in Florida and repeatedly highlighting the plight of the storm victims.
"We're going through trauma in a major part of the country — the kind of trauma you've experienced here in Florida more than once," Romney said at a rally in an airport hangar in Tampa, before gesturing at monitors urging people to text donations to the Red Cross. "Please, if you have an extra dollar or two, send them along and keep the people … who've been damaged either personally or through their property — keep them in your thoughts and prayers."
Despite the talk of bipartisanship and Americans coming together, Romney's storm response had a partisan flavor — he has spoken with the Republican governors of states that have been affected — Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — but not the Democratic governors of New York, Connecticut or Maryland.
Romney never mentioned the president's name Wednesday or directly criticized him, a decision his strategists said was driven by the storm.
But while Romney skirted the president, his surrogates did not — notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as he introduced Romney at a rally at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.
"Washington has to begin to come together. Do you honestly think that this president is capable of bringing people together?" Bush asked, and the crowd screamed "No!"
"His entire strategy is to blame others — starting with my brother, of course," Bush continued. "Basically, he blames every possible thing rather than having the humility to be able to reach out and to find common ground."
And the two running mates had no problem slashing at each other.
Vice President Joe Biden accused Romney of airing the most "scurrilous" and "flagrantly dishonest ads" he could remember, saying the Romney campaign's use of ads suggesting automakers were taking jobs overseas shows desperation and a lack of character unbecoming of a presidential hopeful.
Biden noted that the ads, which imply that the auto industry bailout overseen by Obama prompted Chrysler to move jobs overseas and GM to lay off workers, are intended to scare Ohio voters who have just recently started to recover after years of loss, and that the claims have been denounced by officials with both companies
"They called it … a leap that would be difficult even for professional circus acrobats," Biden said.
Romney running mate Paul D. Ryan repeated the ad's attack on Obama while campaigning in Racine, Wis.
"The facts, they speak for themselves. President Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy; taxpayers still stand to lose $25 billion in the president's politically managed bankruptcy," Ryan said. "These companies, Chrysler in particular — we know this story — are now choosing to expand manufacturing overseas.... Those facts are inconvenient for the president but no one disputes them. The president and the vice president — the problem is they simply can't defend their record."
Hennessey reported from Brigantine, N.J., Mehta from Tampa and Coral Gables, Fla.
Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report from Sarasota, Fla.