Obama, Romney stay public during storm, but with focus on victims, not politics

The Obama and Romney camps cautiously prepared Tuesday for the final stretch of campaigning, announcing events in the battleground states of Colorado and Ohio as both candidates kept their focus on relief efforts in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy

President Obama spoke Tuesday afternoon at a Red Cross shelter in Washington, D.C., and planned to tour the devastation in New Jersey on Wednesday.

"We certainly feel profoundly for all the families whose lives have been upended. ... The most important message I have for  them is that America's with you," Obama said. "We are standing behind you. And we are going to do everything we can to help you get back on your feet."

Mitt Romney on Tuesday attended a relief effort in Ohio for the victims of Sandy, with just seven days left before Election Day.

“We have heavy hearts, as you know, with all of the suffering going on,” Romney said, standing on an equipment box inside a Kettering, Ohio, gymnasium. “I appreciate what you have done.”

More On This...

    Before he began helping to collect food and other staples, Romney spoke for about five minutes, talking about Massachusetts’ efforts while he was governor to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

    The Obama campaign said former President Bill Clinton will make two stops Tuesday in Colorado -- in Commerce City and Denver. Clinton’s trip is part of a swing through battleground states and states with strong Democratic bases, which include Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

    Obama campaign officials also said the president is tentatively scheduled to return to the campaign trail with a stop Thursday at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan will make two stops in Wisconsin – first in the city of La Crosse, then Hudson -- to thank volunteers who are delivering or collecting items for storm relief efforts, the campaign said.

    Romney’s wife, Ann Romney, also will attend events in Wisconsin, then travel to Iowa.

    Aides at Romney's campaign headquarters say the campaign plans to scale back criticism of Obama to avoid the perception they are putting politics ahead of public safety. The aides said Romney might visit with storm victims later in the week, much as he did when Hurricane Isaac raked the Gulf Coast during the week of the Republican National Convention.

    Both candidates and their running mates have tempered their campaigns, eager not to appear out of sync with more immediate worries over flooding, power outages, economic calamity and personal safety.

    But they also will be jockeying for attention against news coverage of the storm's aftermath during the crucial handful of days left before the Nov. 6 election.

    "When the nation's largest city and even its capital are endangered, when so many people are in peril and face deprivation, it's hard to get back to arguing over taxes," historian and presidential biographer Douglas Brinkley said.

    Millions were left without power as the deadly storm whipped its way through presidential battlegrounds like North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire and sprawled as far as the Great Lakes, where gales threatened Ohio's and Wisconsin's lakeside regions.

    Obama abandoned a Florida event Monday with Clinton to return to Washington. He addressed reporters at the White House, warning that recovery from the giant storm would not be swift. Obama also expressed concern over the storm's effect on the economy: Storm damage was projected at $10 billion to $20 billion, making it one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

    Romney, for his part, spoke by phone to Deputy FEMA Administrator Richard Serino and officials from the Homeland Security Department and the National Weather Service. Addressing supporters in Iowa, he cautioned, like Obama, that the damage would likely be significant.

    With the race in its final full week, most national polls showed Obama and Romney separated by a statistically insignificant point or two, although some said Romney had a narrow lead for the overall popular vote.

    The election is expected to be won or lost in the nine most competitive states that are not reliably Republican or Democratic. Republicans claimed momentum in these states, but the president's campaign projected confidence. Romney's increasingly narrow focus on Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio suggested he still searched for a breakthrough in the Midwest to deny Obama the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

    The U.S. president is not chosen by the nationwide popular vote, but in state-by-state contests that allocate electoral votes. Each state gets one electoral vote for each of its seats in the House of Representatives, as determined by population, and two electoral votes for each of its two senators. That means there are 538 electoral votes, including three for Washington, D.C. The winning candidate must have 50 percent, plus one, or 270 votes.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.