TAMPA — Newly minted Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney stole a march on President Obama Friday by throwing out a scheduled campaign stop in Virginia to fly to Louisiana for an inspection of recovery efforts from Hurricane Isaac.
Obama, who quickly announced his own trip to the Gulf Coast for Monday after Romney’s decision, flew to Fort Bliss, Texas, to meet with troops on the second anniversary of the end of the US combat mission in Iraq. Obama campaign officials, meanwhile, made much of the fact that Romney had not included any mention of the US troops in Afghanistan in his speech Thursday.
The Democrats’ convention doesn’t start until Tuesday, but the general election skirmishing is in full force, and the candidates on Friday seemed to inject fresh urgency into a deadlocked race that has just 66 days left.
Less than 12 hours after he accepted the Republican nomination here, Romney boarded his new campaign plane and flew to Jean Lafitte, La., where he toured an emergency command center with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
“People down here need help,” he said.
Jindal talked about the contributions of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other organizations. Romney inquired how many people had been evacuated and asked, “Did the water come from the sky, or the rivers, or the ocean?”
The storm, which delayed and at times overshadowed the Republican National Convention, caused flooding in the area but was not as devastating as many had feared. Romney said he was hoping to draw more attention to the needs of the region, and to the relief efforts underway.
Hours after Romney revealed his plan to visit the flooded area, the White House quickly announced its Louisiana trip, which White House press secretary Jay Carney said had been in the works before Romney’s trip was made public. On Friday evening, the White House said that the president had convened a call with local leaders in Louisiana and Mississippi to discuss emergency responses.
Addressing troops at Fort Bliss, Obama said, “Today every American can be proud that the United States is safer, the United States is stronger, and the United States is more respected in the world.”
Obama, who did not watch the convention speeches on Thursday night, also rebutted Romney’s argument that the current administration is causing lasting damage to the country.
“If you hear anyone trying to say that America is in decline or that our influence has waned,” he said, “don’t you believe it.”
The Associated Press reported Friday that Romney’s speech marked the first time since 1952 that a Republican presidential nominee didn’t mention the armed forces during an acceptance speech.
“In an almost 45-minute speech Romney didn’t find time to mention our troops in Afghanistan,” Stephanie Cutter, an Obama deputy campaign manager, said on a conference call with reporters.
The back and forth highlighted the heightened tone in the few days between Romney’s nomination at the Republican National Convention here, and the beginning of the Democratic National Convention Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C.
Romney’s trip to Louisiana — to be followed by rallies on Saturday in Cincinnati and Jacksonville, Fla. — came at the invitation of Jindal, according to Romney aides. Jindal, a Republican who had been a potential vice presidential nominee, said he had also asked Obama to come.
“We’re not talking politics. It’s not the right time to do that,” Jindal said. “We’re solely focused on the hurricane and the recovery efforts.”
But Senate majority leader Harry Reid criticized Romney for making the trip to Louisiana, saying the state would not have been prepared for the hurricane without government assistance that Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, has opposed.
Ryan, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, had proposed eliminating $10 billion in disaster spending and instead requiring Congress to cut from elsewhere in the budget to pay for emergencies.
“It is the height of hypocrisy for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to make a pretense of showing sympathy for the victims of Hurricane Isaac when their policies would leave those affected by this disaster stranded and on their own,” Reid said in a statement.
Romney and Ryan held a joint rally Friday morning in Lakeland, Fla., before Romney headed for the Gulf.
Romney laid out five broad steps that he believes would improve the economy.
“We’re going to go after these things,” Romney said. “Measure us. Hold us accountable. Do the same with the president. Look, you’re making a choice as to who the servant will be of the nation.”
Romney also said he thought the convention went well, and professed to be overcome with some of the things said about him.
But in the aftermath of Romney’s speech Thursday night much of the political world was abuzz about actor Clint Eastwood and his rambling 12-minute convention performance in which he spoke to an empty chair that he pretended President Obama was sitting in.
“So Mr. President, how do you handle — how do you handle promises that you made when you were running for election?” he asked, in remarks that came just as television networks began covering the big night. ”How do you handle it? What do you say to people? Do you just. . . I know people were wondering.”
He pretended to ask Obama why he had not closed the prison in Guantanamo Bay. “What do you mean, shut up?” he said.
“What? What do you want me to tell Romney?” he asked at another point. “I can’t tell him to do that.. . . He can’t do that to himself. You’re absolutely crazy. You’re getting as bad as Biden.”
Eastwood’s performance was a rare moment of surprise in an otherwise carefully scripted convention, and it appeared to catch Romney’s campaign advisers, fund-raisers, and family off guard. After GOP aides had vetted almost every speech at the convention, Eastwood took the stage with no teleprompter running and delivered impromptu remarks in the most important moments of the convention, minutes before Romney spoke.
“Well, you know, I was grateful for his support and, at the same time, grateful that there were others there that knew Mitt so well that came and stepped forward,” Romney’s wife, Ann, said this morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Romney campaign aides defended Eastwood, saying “his ad libbing was a break from all the political speeches, and the crowd enjoyed it.”
“He’s an American icon,” Gail Gitcho, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, told CNN’s Piers Morgan. “You can’t look at him at through the same political lens that you would other politicians. He’s Clint Eastwood.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.