Mitt Romney tried to carefully strike a balance between acknowledging the suffering caused by Hurricane Sandy and the imperative of pressing ahead with his bid for the White House as he returned to the campaign trail here Wednesday morning.
Romney opened the first of his three rallies across Florida Wednesday with a plea for donations to support storm victims, and he issued a call for national unity. The Republican nominee never mentioned President Obama, who is scheduled to tour storm-ravaged New Jersey on Wednesday, and stripped from his remarks the harsh attacks on the president that had become staples of his stump speech.
"We're going through trauma in a major part of the country," Romney said. He added: "We love all of our fellow citizens. We come together in times like this and we want to make sure that they have a speedy and quick recovery from their financial — and, in many cases, personal — loss."
Romney added that he believes the country will come together Nov. 7, the day after the election, but that until then, he and Obama would be describing their "differing viewpoints with regards to the campaigns."
Romney tried to rally his supporters by promising "real change." And he laid out his vision for the country and an economic agenda that includes overhauling the tax code and loosening government regulations — which, by definition, amounted to a sharp contrast with the president's record.
"I believe that this is the year for us to take a different course. I will bring real change and real reform and a presidency that brings us together," Romney said. "Now, I don't just talk about change; I actually have a plan to execute change and to make it happen."
Romney stressed his promise to work across the aisle with Democrats and govern in a bipartisan fashion. Meaningful changes to the economy, he said, would require "something that Washington talks about but hasn't done in a long, long time, and that is truly reach across the aisle and find good Democrats and good Republicans that will come together and find common ground and work in the interest of the American people, not just in the interest of politics."
But at that, a supporter in the crowd yelled, "Fire Obama!" - an outburst that magnified the difficult political task for Romney on Wednesday to thread the needle between continuing his campaign while not attacking the president as he leads the federal response to Sandy.
Romney was introduced by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio before he addressed some 2,000 supporters inside a private hangar at Tampa International Airport. Instead of the typical campaign banners trumpeting slogans like, "We Can't Afford Four More Years," or "Real Recovery," the lone decorations were two American flags.
On the jumbotrons, the campaign did not show the Romney biographical video it normally plays. Instead, they showed the American Red Cross logo and information on how to make a donation — something Romney, who has made his own personal donation, urged supporters to do. "Please, if you have an extra dollar or two, send them along," Romney said.
Romney has come under criticism for his comments from a June 2011 debate in which he said state governments should assume more responsibilities for disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Romney declined to answer repeated questions about the matter from reporters Tuesday, but he got some backup from a high-profile supporter Wednesday. Bush, who led Florida's response to a devastating spate of hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, seemed to indirectly defend Romney in his introductory remarks at the Tampa rally.
"My experience in all this emergency-response business is that it is the local level and the state level that really matters - that if they do their job right, the federal government part works out pretty good," Bush said.