WASHINGTON – President Obama surveyed Sandy’s devastation in New Jersey on Wednesday alongside Gov. Chris Christie, in a bipartisan display that precedes a full-scale cranking up of the campaign operation with just six days left before Election Day.
The president, greeted by Christie upon landing in Atlantic City, went on an hour-long tour with the governor on the presidential helicopter. Obama and Christie flew over some of the worst-hit areas, including the popular boardwalk destinations of Seaside Heights and Point Pleasant -- communities now covered in sand and water. In Seaside Heights, the two hovered above a still-burning fire that appeared to have claimed several homes and surveyed damage to iconic Jersey Shore landmarks.
Obama, speaking alongside Christie later in the day in Brigantine, N.J., said federal efforts would focus primarily on New Jersey, New York state, Connecticut and West Virginia -- urging people to immediately to start registering for emergency assistance.
“We are here for you, and we will not forget, we will follow up … until you rebuild,” the president said. “We will not quit until this is done. … We are not going to tolerate red tape.” He and Christie praised one another for their response.
In a reminder that the tour and storm response comes in the midst of an airtight political race, the word “ROMNEY” was etched in sand on the north side of Point Pleasant Beach as Obama and Christie – one of Romney’s most vocal supporters – passed over.
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The Obama and Romney campaigns now face the monumental task of refocusing attention on the election as millions of potential voters deal with historic loss from the monster storm that gusted through the East Coast and beyond.
Mitt Romney returned to the campaign trail Wednesday with three stops in Florida – Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville – attempting to win a battleground state where most polls show him with a slight lead.
At the same time, Romney is trying to expand the map, competing in the ostensibly blue state of Pennsylvania while forcing the Obama campaign to devote resources to states he won in 2008, including Wisconsin.
Romney began the Tampa rally by asking Americans to help the storm victims, then shifted to his argument that he can improve the country's bleak economic situation.
"This (election) should be a turning point," Romney said. "Twenty three million Americans are still struggling to find a job. ... This hasn't happened in American history."
Though Obama briefly suspended official campaign events, his tour of storm-ravaged New Jersey will more than likely attract the most voter attention and provide an opportunity for him to highlight his abilities as commander in chief with six days remaining before Election Day.
Obama is expected to return to the campaign trail Thursday with stops in the battleground states of Colorado, Nevada and Wisconsin, while the campaigns appear to also be re-engaging in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
The Romney campaign also is plunging into the Democratic-leaning states of Minnesota and Pennsylvania, forcing the Obama campaign to spend money there on TV ads and dispatching top backers.
The move has raised question among voters, campaign strategists and others about whether Romney is searching for a last-minute path to the 270 Electoral College votes without all-important Ohio, or whether he’s so confident in the most competitive battlegrounds that he can try to expand the so-called electoral map.
“It makes sense,” Democratic strategist David Heller said Wednesday. “It’s not a resource allocation issue. If you have the money to do everything you need to do in those battleground states, why wouldn’t you? There’s no downside.”
Former President Bill Clinton made two campaign stops Tuesday in Minnesota, which has 10 electoral votes but hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972.
"Barack Obama's policies work better," Clinton declared on the University of Minnesota campus.
An averaging of national polls by the website RealClearPolitics has the race tied at 47 percent.
Of the nine states where the candidates have spent more than $1 billion in advertising since June, Romney is in the strongest position in North Carolina. But public and internal campaign polls show he's locked in tight battles in Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada and Virginia and is fighting to overtake Obama's advantage in Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Vice President Joe Biden is making two stops Wednesday in Florida, while Romney's running mate Rep. Paul Ryan attends three rallies in his home state of Wisconsin.
Clinton's Minnesota visit came just days after Romney and his allies started airing TV ads in the state. GOP-leaning groups, including Americans for Job Security and American Future Fund, were spending $615,000 this week. Romney spent a much lighter $29,000 last week, and it was unclear how much his campaign was spending this week.
The combined effort forced Obama to try to prevent the state from slipping out of his grasp. His campaign was spending $210,000 on ads in Minnesota this week.
Polls show Romney having gained ground in Minnesota though still trailing Obama. And Obama has a much larger campaign footprint of paid staff and volunteers, including more than 30 full-time workers and 12 offices. Romney never has established much of a campaign organization in Minnesota.
In Pennsylvania, Romney's campaign started pouring money into TV ads Monday for the first time, though Republican-leaning groups have been on the air in recent days trying to narrow the Obama advantage.
American Crossroads, Restore Our Future and Americans for Job Security are spending at least $3.9 million this week.
A poll of Pennsylvania votes released Wednesday by Franklin & Marshall College shows Romney closing Obama’s lead among likely voters – from 9 percentage points in September to 4 points in October.
GOP allies also were running TV ads in Democratic-tilting Michigan in hopes of softening the ground there for Romney in the final days, but there was no indication yet that the Republican himself would make a strong 11th-hour play for the state where he was born and raised. Obama's team said late Tuesday that it was answering Restore Our Future's $2 million in ads in Michigan, which has 16 electoral votes.
Obama's team cast Romney's moves into the three states, which have trended Democrat for more than 20 years, as a desperate act by a candidate who hasn't locked up the states he needs for a White House win.
"They understand they're not going to be able to win Ohio and now they're getting desperate and want to be able to put other states in play," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. "We're going to win Pennsylvania, but we aren't taking anything for granted."
Romney political director Rich Beeson said, “This expansion of the electoral map demonstrates that Governor Romney's momentum has jumped containment from the usual target states."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.