Presideintial campaigns proceed under Sandy's influence

Obama, Romney campaigns buy $40M in ads

Will the devastation of Superstorm Sandy tone down the hostile rhetoric of the presidential campaign?

Early indications on Wednesday were yes, at least by President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney, leaving it to surrogates and others to do the political dirty work.

Obama planned to tour storm damage in New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a frequent critic who has praised the president's response to the disaster.

While Obama has avoided overt political statements in the aftermath of the storm, he is making sure to publicize his role in the federal response.

Before heading to New Jersey, the president visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency to meet with officials. On Tuesday, Obama stopped by the American Red Cross and also held a conference call with governors and mayors in affected states, promising immediate and efficient help for the most critical needs.

His comments at the Red Cross included themes from Obama's campaign stump speech about Americans working together to help each other.

"This is a tough time for millions of folks across the Eastern Seaboard, but America is tougher and we are tougher because we pull together, we don't leave anybody behind, we make sure that we respond as a nation," Obama said.

Romney campaigns in Florida

At his first bona fide campaign event 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, at one point telling the crowd in Tampa 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.

Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan said in his home state of Wisconsin that "empty promises" of the past "have become a debt that is so great that this debt is not only hurting our economy today, but is guaranteeing our kids will see a diminished future."

"We're going to wake up next Wednesday morning knowing we've elected a leader who is going to put the country on the right track," the conservative House Budget Committee chairman said in Eau Claire.

By contrast, Vice President Joe Biden kept his steady political attacks on the Republican ticket.

At an event in Sarasota, Fla., Biden called Romney and Ryan "shameless" and accused them of twisting facts in television ads that he said were "flatly untrue."

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.

The president and Christie and both used nearly identical language in saying their concern was on disaster relief rather than next Tuesday's election.

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.

Hard-hitting attacks from candidate supporters

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. "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.

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.

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.

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 multimillion-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, former Florida Gov. Jeb 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," said Bush, the brother and son of former President's George W. and George H.W. Bush.

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, and the Romney campaign issued a statement in response.

"Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions," said the statement by spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. "As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA."

Henneberg added another sentence to the statement Tuesday, saying that "a Romney-Ryan administration will always ensure that disaster funding is there for those in need. Period."

Biden said Tuesday that the federal response to Sandy was "working like it's supposed to," and he highlighted to reporters in Ohio what he described as unprecedented cooperation between city, state and federal authorities and agencies.

A White House statement also emphasized such cooperation, noting Obama spoke by phone with a host of Republican and Democratic governors and mayors from states affected by the storm.

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.