Mitt Romney, originally in Kettering, Ohio, to campaign, helps collect… (Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty…)
KETTERING, Ohio — With Sandy spreading more storm havoc, the two presidential contenders stepped back Tuesday from overt politicking as their tight race assumed an odd limbo just a week before election day.
President Obama remained at the White House, overseeing federal emergency efforts and receiving welcome praise from New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, who has been one of Mitt Romney's highest-profile surrogates. Obama announced he would tour battered New Jersey with Christie on Wednesday, skipping a pair of campaign rallies.
The GOP nominee helped gather donations at an Ohio campaign stop hastily rebranded as a relief effort, then flew to Florida, where he planned to resume full-time campaigning Wednesday. Romney declined to respond when reporters asked about past statements questioning the role of the federal government in disaster relief.
He struck a decidedly nonpartisan tone in brief remarks to more than 1,000 supporters gathered in a high school arena outside Dayton.
"We have heavy hearts, as you know, with all the suffering going on in a major part of our country," Romney said. "A lot of people hurting this morning. They were hurting last night. And the storm goes on."
After clearing his Monday night and Tuesday schedules, the Romney campaign announced three stops Wednesday in Florida, the biggest prize among the up-for-grab states; its 29 electoral votes are almost certainly a must-win for the Republican.
The White House, meanwhile, presented a portrait of Obama hard at work, releasing details of a storm briefing Tuesday morning and conference calls with nearly two dozen governors and mayors and, later, power company executives, as well as a photograph of the president in the Situation Room being updated on the storm.
Later, Obama paid a visit to Red Cross headquarters in Washington, where he said his "most important message" to those suffering is that "America is with you" and will be for the long haul. He said the emergency response had been outstanding and the word he sent to federal emergency officials was to act without hesitation. "No bureaucracy," Obama said. "No red tape."
"Get resources where they're needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration," Obama said.
The president received effusive praise — politically unthinkable under normal circumstances — from Christie, who took to the morning talk shows to discuss the devastation his state suffered.
The administration has been "outstanding," Christie said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "I want to thank the president personally."
Asked on Fox News — before Obama's visit was announced — about the prospect of a Romney tour, Christie replied: "I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested. I've got a job to do here in New Jersey that's much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff."
However, with the election so close, politics was never far removed, even as both White House contenders strove to appear above campaign considerations — for the day, anyway.
Romney's critics pointed to a 2011 Republican primary debate in which he appeared to suggest getting rid of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and handing its authority over to the states.
"Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction," Romney said. "And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."
The agency already outsources much of its work to the private sector.
Romney didn't answer reporters Tuesday when they repeatedly asked about FEMA as he shook hands in Ohio. Later, the campaign issued a statement essentially calling for no change, saying Romney believed states should take the lead in responding to disasters, with help from the federal government and FEMA.
All the while, the candidates and their allies kept pummeling one another on television. Romney was airing a pair of anti-Obama ads making discredited claims about the auto bailout and welfare reform. Obama and his supporters were paying for spots attacking Romney's private-sector record at Bain Capital and replaying a clip from the secretly recorded video in which Romney disparages the 47% of Americans he says are overly reliant on government support.
The former Massachusetts governor was initially scheduled to hold a rally in Kettering, a Dayton suburb, but the event was toned down in deference to the storm. Absent were campaign signs and Romney's booming theme song, Kid Rock's "Born Free," though the event included a broadcast of the glowing biographical video that debuted at the Republican National Convention. (A campaign spokesman later said it was played by mistake.) A message on two large screens urged people to text donations to the Red Cross.
Romney, wearing a button-down shirt and jeans, spoke for about five minutes, then collected donations of canned goods, boxed cereal and other nonperishables for about 30 minutes while Randy Owens, lead singer of the country group Alabama, performed.
While the effort was well-intentioned, emergency relief groups have said it is preferable to give cash or donate blood because of the logistical challenge other donations present to rescue workers.
Barabak reported from Boulder, Colo., and Mehta from Kettering, Ohio.
Neela Banerjee and Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report from Washington.