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Obama, Romney tone down rhetoric, but campaigns don't

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Thu November 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: President Barack Obama tours New Jersey storm damage
  • NEW: Mitt Romney tones down rhetoric at campaign events in Florida
  • Surrogates and supporters of Obama and Romney continue attacks
  • The November 6 election is considered too close to call

(CNN) -- Will the devastation of Superstorm Sandy tone down the hostile rhetoric of the presidential campaign?

The answer Wednesday was yes, at least by President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney, who left it to surrogates and others to do the political dirty work.

Obama avoided any overt political statements when he toured storm damage in New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a frequent critic who has praised the president's response to the disaster.

His comments at the end of the trip focused on the federal response, but concluded with a theme from Obama's campaign stump speech about Americans working together to help each other.

"We go through tough times, but we bounce back," the president said at the North Point Marina in Brigantine. "We bounce back because we look out for one another, and we don' t leave anybody behind."

Is it too soon to restart campaigns?

Obama also made sure his role in the federal response to the disaster was well publicized.

How Romney, Obama adjust to storm
Romney: Storm will be a 'difficult time'

Before heading to New Jersey, he visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency to meet with officials coordinating federal efforts. After his tour, Obama spoke of a 15-minute rule he imposed that requires federal relief officials to respond for calls for help from local authorities within that time period, adding that "if they need something, you figure out a way to say yes."

Romney campaigns in Florida

At his first bona fide campaign events since Sandy blasted the East Coast earlier this week, Romney focused his remarks on his oft-repeated five-point plan to increase domestic energy, expand trade, improve education and training, balance the budget and help small businesses.

He included some muted zingers, telling crowds in Tampa and Coral Gables that "I don't just talk about change," a reference to what he has previously called Obama's failure to deliver on the "hope and change" theme from 2008.

Romney's main message was the need to change the direction of the country from the chronic deficits and mounting debt of past years, saying the country required leaders who worked "in the interests of people" instead of seeking political gain.

A Romney spokesman told reporters the more positive stance by the former Massachusetts governor was planned.

"Our focus today is going to continue to be to strike a positive tone about what the governor would do on Day One of a Romney presidency," said campaign adviser Kevin Madden.

While Romney never mentioned Obama by name, some backers who spoke before him in Coral Gables were less reticent to attack.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asked if "you honestly think that this president is capable of bringing people together," then said Obama's campaign strategy "is to blame others, starting with my brother" -- former President George W. Bush, who preceded Obama in the White House.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida raised the issue of a terrorist attack in Libya on September 11 that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, complaining Obama was "nowhere to be found" to answer questions about what happened.

Conservative commentators allege a White House cover-up because some top officials, including U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, initially indicated a protest over an anti-Islam film spawned the deadly attack.

The Obama administration denies any attempt to mislead, saying initial intelligence reports were conflicting, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has appointed a panel to review what happened.

On the Democratic side, Vice President Joe Biden kept up his steady political attacks on the Republican ticket.

At an event in Sarasota, Florida, Biden called Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, "shameless" and accused them of running "one of the most flagrantly dishonest ads I can ever remember in my political career" in reference to a television spot that claims Chrysler was shifting Jeep manufacturing from the United States to China.

Officials of the company have declared the Romney ad incorrect, saying manufacturing abroad was an expansion of operations in the United States, rather than outsourcing.

"It's an outrageous lie," Biden said, adding the Romney ad caused U.S. autoworkers to call their union offices asking if it was true manufacturing jobs were transferred abroad. "What a cynical, cynical thing to do ... to go out and try to scare these people for electoral reasons at the end, to say something that's so untrue."

When asked about Biden's comment, Madden of the Romney campaign said the ad "makes the case for why Gov. Romney would be stronger for the auto industry and why the auto industry's an important part of a strong economy."

Ryan also addressed the issue at an appearance in Wisconsin, noting that the federal bailout of the auto industry resulted in plants shutting down -- including some in the state.

"American taxpayers are on track to lose $25 billion as a result of President Obama's handling of the auto bailout, and GM and Chrysler are expanding their production overseas," Ryan said in an earlier statement.

Obama will return to full campaign mode on Thursday with events in Wisconsin, Colorado and Nevada -- all still up for grabs and therefore crucial to both candidates. His intention Wednesday was to project the image of a president focused on the well-being of fellow citizens in need.

After flying over parts of the Jersey shoreline and other areas, Obama and Christie met with displaced people in a shelter and later walked through damaged neighborhoods in an entourage that included the state's two Democratic senators - Frank Lautenberg and Bob Menendez.

On Tuesday, Christie praised Obama as "outstanding" and "incredibly supportive" in responding to Sandy, a radical change from the political attacks the Republican usually launches in his role as a top surrogate for Romney.

The governor repeated his complimentary tone while with Obama on Wednesday, saying: "I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion for our state and the people of our state."

Hard-hitting attacks from candidate supporters

Meanwhile, supporters of the candidates continued hard-hitting attacks.

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC backing Obama, announced a new ad accusing Romney and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a fellow Republican, of benefiting from Medicare fraud.

"While Romney served as a director of the Damon Corporation, the company stole $25 million from Medicare," said a release by Priorities USA Action, attributing the information to a Boston Globe report from 2002. "Romney made half a million dollars - some of the profit generated by the fraud. Rick Scott was CEO of the company that committed what was the largest Medicare fraud in history."

The group also said Romney plans to cut funding for Medicare and change it to a voucher system that would increase costs for senior citizens. Romney rejects that characterization of a proposal to partially privatize the government-run health care system for elderly Americans.

There was no immediate response from the Romney campaign to the super-PAC ad.

Florida, with 29 electoral votes, is the biggest haul available from the battleground states still contested, and Medicare is a major issue there because of the large number of senior citizens who live there.

For its part, the Romney campaign revived a widely-discredited welfare claim in a new television ad that cited the "gutting" of the work requirement in welfare by Obama.

An earlier string of ads making a similar claim was rated as "Pants on Fire" -- or completely false -- by the independent and non-partisan fact-checking organization PolitiFact.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith responded that the welfare ad showed desperation by the Romney campaign.

Meanwhile, Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based social conservative organization founded by evangelical author and radio host James Dobson, sent a mailing in Iowa that quotes Obama as saying "we are no longer a Christian nation."

The fold-out brochure, which landed in Iowa mailboxes last week and was provided to CNN by a Des Moines-area voter, drew contrasts between Obama and Romney on the issues of abortion, same-sex marriage and insurance coverage for contraception.

"Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation," Obama is quoted as saying in the mailer, which does not explicitly endorse Romney.

The quote is from a speech Obama delivered in 2006, more than two years before he became president, at the Call to Renewal conference in Washington.

In 2008, during Obama's first national campaign, the same out-of-context remark was circulated online as sinister evidence that the Democrat intended to curtail religious freedom in America. At the time, the spurious Internet chatter was debunked by FactCheck.org, another independent monitoring group.

Big ad buys in final week

The Obama and Romney campaigns bought $40 million worth of commercials to run this week and into Election Day in key battleground states, according to a source tracking media buys, as spending records continue to be shattered.

For ad time running from Monday through the November 6 election, the Obama campaign bought $22.6 million compared to $17.4 million for Romney, according to the media-tracking source. Both campaigns are continuing to purchase additional commercial time as they jockey for any last-minute advantage.

In addition, two of the key super PACs backing Romney launched multi million-dollar battleground ad campaigns this week, with many of their ads targeting the president's economic record. In total the Republican outside groups will have spent more than $310 million in the general election.

At Romney's event in Tampa, Bush sought to downplay Obama's role in the disaster relief effort, saying "my experience in all this emergency response business is that it is the local level and the state level that really matters."

"If they do their job right, the federal government part works out pretty good," he said.

Romney, meanwhile, urged supporters to donate to the Red Cross to help victims of the superstorm without addressing the federal response or Obama's role.

Democratic critics of Romney and Ryan argue their proposals to cut government spending and provide broad tax cuts without generating more government revenue will end up harming the economy and increasing the federal deficit.

In particular, the Obama campaign challenges Romney's contention that increased economic growth from the tax cuts combined with shifting current federal responsibilities to states, the private sector and humanitarian agencies and charities can balance the budget.

Last year, Romney argued at a Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire that cutting federal spending should be based on prioritizing what is absolutely necessary and shedding the rest.

Asked then by moderator John King of CNN if disaster relief efforts should be turned over to states, Romney said that "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. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better."

"Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut -- we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep?" Romney added. "We should take all of what we're doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we're doing that we don't have to do? And those things we've got to stop doing, because we're borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we're taking in."

King cut in to ask if Romney was referring specifically to disaster relief, a topic in the news at the time following a deadly Joplin, Missouri, tornado, and Romney continued: "We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all."

Sandy response

With then-Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the East Coast on Monday, Romney's debate comments from 16 months earlier became a topic of political discussion.

Madden commented on the matter Wednesday, offering a similar statement to what the Romney campaign previously issued.

"Gov. Romney believes in a very efficient, effective disaster relief response and he believes one of the ways to do that is to put a premium on the states and their efforts to respond to these disasters," Madden said. "That's why they call them first responders. They're the first to respond in states. So traditionally they've been the best at responding to these disasters. ... But he does believe that FEMA has a really important role there and that being a partner for the states is the best approach."

Obama and the White House have emphasized the cooperation between federal, state and local authorities in responding to Sandy, with the president praising Christie on Wednesday for planning ahead and working with FEMA..

"I thank him for his extraordinary leadership and partnership," Obama said..

Romney has made political dysfunction in Washington a target of his campaign, blaming Obama for what he calls failed leadership in being unable to forge a deficit reduction deal with Republicans.

Democrats blame Republicans for what they contend has been an unwillingness to compromise, and the focus on cooperation by Obama and Biden appeared to be aimed in part at demonstrating the administration's ability to get things done.

CNN's Jim Acosta, Robert Yoon, Shannon Travis, Kevin Bohn, Rachel Streitfeld and Shawna Shepherd contributed to this report.

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