Mitt Romney addresses the National Guard Assn. of the U.S. convention in… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
RENO – Setting aside much of the rivalry of the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney flew halfway across the country Tuesday to speak to members of the National Guard and pay tribute to their sacrifices since Sept. 11, 2001.
In a speech that laid out his vision for American security while going easier than usual on President Obama, Romney recalled his own experiences on Sept. 11 and spoke of the need to maintain a strong military and "keep faith with our veterans" by reforming the Veterans Administration.
"With less than two months to go before election day, I would normally speak to a gathering like this about the differences between my and my opponent’s plans for our military and for our national security," Romney told the 134th general conference of the National Guard Assn. of the U.S. "There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not that."
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His comments were in keeping with the overall tone of the day, which has become the nation's most solemn commemorative event, taking the place once reserved for Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day. Both presidential campaigns suspended negative advertising for a day, giving Americans respite from what has become an acrimonious and sometimes ugly presidential race. It is a day of special reverence for the National Guard, which paid a heavy price in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.
Still, Romney couldn't resist some digs at Obama, most pulled from his usual stump speech.
"We can all agree that our men and women in the field deserve a clear mission, that they deserve the resources and resolute leadership they need to complete that mission, and that they deserve a country that will provide for their needs when they come home," he said, leaving unsaid the implication that Obama has not done that.
"Of course," he continued, "the return of our troops cannot and must not be used as an excuse to hollow out our military through devastating defense budget cuts. It is true that our armed forces have been stretched to the brink – and that is all the more reason to repair and rebuild. We can always find places to end waste. But we cannot cancel program after program, we cannot jeopardize critical missions, and we cannot cut corners in the quality of the equipment and training we provide."
That was an apparent reference to the large defense cuts that will go into effect in January if Obama and Congress cannot resolve their differences over federal spending and revenue – the so-called sequestration plan that has become a major issue in the campaign.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith immediately issued a rebuttal: “The president agrees that we should avoid the automatic defense cuts in the Budget Control Act. That’s why he has called on congressional Republicans to help prevent them with a balanced plan that asks millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share.”
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Romney began the day in Chicago, where he had attended a private fundraiser the night before. Arriving at Chicago O'Hare International Airport about 8 a.m., he just missed a somber 9/11 ceremony by Chicago firefighters assigned to protect him. About two dozen firefighters had gathered on the tarmac within about 100 yards of Romney's plane. At 7:46 a.m. Central time, timed to the moment the first plane struck the World Trade Center, they stood at attention, saluting, for a full minute. A large American flag was draped on firetrucks behind them, and the lights of the trucks were flashing.
The firefighters were still in place when Romney arrived in his motorcade. Before boarding, he strode briskly across the tarmac to shake hands with each of them.
He then took off for Reno, his only campaign appearance of the day. After his 18-minute speech to the National Guard, he flew to Florida for another fundraiser and campaign appearance.
At the National Guard gathering in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, Romney was introduced as the "onetime commander of the Massachusetts National Guard" – a title he held as governor of that state.
After paying homage to the National Guard, Romney described his own experiences on Sept. 11, when he was in Washington to discuss security for the Salt Lake City Olympic Games. He recalled hearing about the attacks and watching on television from an office near the White House. He then left the city, driving through Alexandria, Va., near the Pentagon, which had also been struck.
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"I could smell burning fuel and concrete and steel," he said. "It was the smell of war, something I never imagined I would smell in America."