Politicking a tough act to pull off in a disaster
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney helps collect and pack donated goods at a storm relief center in Kettering, Ohio, near Dayton.
President Barack Obama receives applause Tuesday by workers at the Red Cross headquarters' Disaster Operation Center in Washington.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie updates members of the media on damage and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Sandy from the emergency operations center at State Police Headquarters in Ewing, New Jersey.
President Barack Obama speaks at the Red Cross headquarters about ongoing relief in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
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That was certainly what former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wanted to get across Tuesday to victims of Hurricane Sandy, but between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's rave reviews of President Barack Obama -- at one point on Fox News -- and shouted questions from reporters about Romney criticisms of FEMA, the Republican presidential nominee had some trouble being heard.
The day after Sandy clawed her way across the Northeast -- leaving fires, flooding, downed trees, thousands homeless, millions without power and 40 dead -- both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney found themselves engaged in a delicate juggling act: to appear presidential without being political, with only six days left before the election.
It was easier for Mr. Obama, who, after all, is the president. He canceled all campaign events Tuesday to focus on directing relief efforts -- although surrogates campaigned for him -- signing major disaster declarations for New York and New Jersey to enable them to get federal assistance. That prompted an outburst of praise from Mr. Christie, a key Romney ally, who called Mr. Obama's response to the storm "outstanding." Mr. Obama announced plans to tour New Jersey today with the governor.
Mr. Romney had a tougher task: As the Republican challenger in an increasingly tight race, he had to keep campaigning without seeming to be.
On Monday, he scrapped scheduled political events out of deference to those in the path of the storm. By Tuesday morning, he'd reversed course, announcing a "relief" event in Kettering, Ohio, to collect donations for storm victims -- only to be dogged by reporters asking him about comments he made during the primary campaign about the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Mr. Romney ignored repeated efforts by reporters to get him to clarify his remarks on FEMA. In response to questions from moderator John King in a June 2011 CNN debate, he said federal borrowing for such emergency relief was "immoral" and relief would be best left to the states, or better yet, privatized. His aides insisted he never said he'd abolish the agency.
Mr. Romney's Ohio appearance was billed as an opportunity for people to contribute items to relief efforts. "It's part of the American spirit, the American way, to give to people who are in need, and your generosity this morning touches my heart," Mr. Romney told attendees who brought nonperishable food and other goods to Fairmont High School in the Dayton suburb of Kettering. "We won't be able to solve all our problems with our effort this morning ... but one of the things I learned in life is that you make the difference you can."
Mr. Obama said much the same thing Tuesday during remarks at a Red Cross center in Washington, D.C., stressing the importance of watching out for neighbors, while resorting to tough commander-in-chief language aimed at the federal government -- and perhaps to voters.
"There's no excuse for inaction at this point. I want every agency to lean forward and to make sure that we are getting the resources where ... they're needed as quickly as possible," the president said.
"So I want to repeat -- my message to the federal government: No bureaucracy, no red tape."
So who benefits most from the unpredictable events of the last few days?
Mr. Romney "is trying to have it both ways," said Robert Lowry, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas. "He's trying to get some mileage out of it and maybe trying to emphasize the virtues of private voluntary action."
But for Mr. Obama, looking presidential, firm and decisive in the wake of a natural disaster doesn't make much of a difference, Mr. Lowry said.
"Nobody ever questioned that Obama is a competent manager, and he is doing a competent job. It's the CNN debate that can actually make a difference."
Indeed, watch Obama officials make as much of Mr. Romney's 2011 FEMA comments as they can in the coming days.
"Obama's campaign is really trying to play that up. That does seem a fairly extreme position. Disaster relief is a fundamental function of government," Mr. Lowry said.
Still Mr. Romney is doing his best, said Jo Ann Davidson, a longtime Republican Party stalwart in Ohio, noting that a natural disaster like this one "does put Gov. Romney in a difficult position. Everyone in the country's heart goes out to those who suffered the superstorm." Ms. Davidson, a Republican national committeewoman, said "it's tough for any candidate, but Mitt Romney is a sensitive person and he's displayed that throughout this campaign."
If that's the case, said Mary Anne Sharkey, a veteran political consultant in Cleveland, why isn't Mr. Romney campaigning in the northern part of Ohio, which has suffered the most damage from the storm, instead of the southern part of the state, which is more Republican?
Rob Frost, chairman of Cuyahoga County's Republican Party, begged to differ about Mr. Romney's choice of venue, noting there was a wind advisory in northern Ohio up until 1 p.m. Tuesday, and people were asked to remain indoors. A large tree actually fell near his home Tuesday morning, he added.
Mr. Romney's appearance Tuesday was meant to show that "actions speak louder than words, and we're focusing on what private individuals can do."
Mr. Romney resumes regular campaigning today, when he is scheduled to be in Florida, and then in Virginia on Thursday, while his wife, Ann, announced plans to come to northeast Ohio on Thursday.
From now until Election Day, the tone of both campaigns will change, said Jeff McCall, DePauw University professor of communications. Expect fewer attacks and more focus on policy, he said.
"They have to be much more businesslike moving forward, even at the rallies," he said. "When a nation is struggling to recover from a disaster, even people who are not directly affected don't want to see their political leaders attacking each other when so many Americans are without power and suffering the effects of the storm."
Even Vice President Joe Biden seemed newly disciplined and completely on message Tuesday.
Asked by reporters to talk about what Mr. Romney's proposals could mean for FEMA, Mr. Biden declined to bite.
Then, though, he scored a political point not lost on anyone who remembers "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," then-President George W. Bush's praise for Michael Brown not long before the former FEMA director was forced out for his handling of Hurricane Katrina.
FEMA "is working like it's supposed to," Mr. Biden said. "FEMA has been reorganized. It's doing one helluva job."
But when asked about Mr. Romney's event today, Mr. Biden brushed off the question and headed toward his plane.
First Published October 31, 2012 12:00 am