President Obama toured hurricane-battered New Jersey by helicopter and on foot Wednesday, before resolutely vowing to bring the full power of the federal government to assist those whose lives were upended by Hurricane Sandy.
Taking one more day off the campaign trail, Obama spent the afternoon with Governor Chris Christie, meeting with emergency officials and visiting a shelter for people left homeless on the island city of Brigantine.
Later Obama described his “15-minute rule” for federal officials: “You return everybody’s phone calls in 15 minutes,” Obama said at a news conference. “Whether it’s the mayors, the governors, county officials, if they need something, we figure out a way to say yes.”
Obama will resume campaigning on Thursday with only five days left to make his case for a second term, visiting Wisconsin, Nevada, and Colorado.
The news conference Wednesday featured a pairing unthinkable a week ago: the president with one of his fiercest critics, Christie, vowing fidelity to a common cause and expressing an appreciation for each other’s efforts and talents.
“It’s been a great working relationship . . . and I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion for our state and the people of our state,” Christie said.
Obama was equally complimentary, crediting Christie with extraordinary leadership.
The president canceled campaign events on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to oversee the government’s response to Sandy, which as of Wednesday had killed at least 70 people in the United States.
“Our judgment was, until we got a handle on the scope of this disaster, the president’s job was to remain in Washington,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s senior strategist, on a phone call with reporters. “We’ve passed a threshold here. We do have an election Tuesday, and we owe it to folks to make the final arguments, and we’re going to do that.”
Obama’s rival, Mitt Romney, also scrapped or modified rallies but returned to the campaign trail Wednesday with three events in Florida, appearing with former governor Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the state’s junior senator.
At his first stop in Tampa, Romney did not criticize Obama directly, or even mention him by name, but said, “This is the year for us to take a different course.”
“I don’t just talk about change,” Romney said. “I actually have a plan to execute change.”
Romney continued urging his supporters to donate to the Red Cross to aid hurricane victims. His campaign confirmed Wednesday that Romney made a personal donation to the Red Cross but did not disclose the amount.
The return to campaigning comes at a critical juncture. Polls show a deadlocked race for the White House, and some state-level surveys indicate tighter-than-expected contests.
In Pennsylvania, for instance, Obama leads by only 4 percentage points, according to a poll published Wednesday by Franklin and Marshall College.
The president’s lead in Michigan is down to 3 percentage points, according to a Detroit News survey released Tuesday. And a Star Tribune poll published Monday put Obama’s edge in Minnesota, too, at just 3 points. An averaging of polls by the website RealClearPolitics showed the president had leads approaching 10 percentage points in each of those states in September.
The states have been widely regarded as likely wins for the president, but the Romney campaign now claims to be in position to pull off upsets.
And Obama’s first step back onto the trail will be in Green Bay, despite a Marquette University poll that on Wednesday showed him leading Wisconsin by 8 points. Amber Wichowsky, a professor of political science at Marquette, said Obama’s lead is only 2 points among the voters who are most engaged in the election.
“That, I believe, is what they sense — that some of their support comes from people who are not as engaged and who might not be reliable votes,” Wichowsky said. “That’s where the importance of mobilization comes in.”
The race also remains close in the most hard-fought battlegrounds. A CBS News/New York Times poll published Wednesday put Obama up by 5 points in Ohio, unchanged from last week. The president led by 2 points in Virginia, down from 5 on Oct. 11, and he was up by a single point in Florida, after holding a 9-point advantage in the Sunshine State as recently as last month.
Obama’s team projected confidence Wednesday, in spite of the polling data and ad buys, releasing a Web video in which campaign manager Jim Messina declared that the president is in a dominant position.
During a conference call with reporters, Messina accused the Romney campaign of trying to sell “illusion and delusion.” He singled out Romney’s auto ads running in Ohio that suggest Obama’s 2009 bailout of carmakers resulted in American jobs disappearing to China. Both Chrysler and General Motors have challenged Romney’s claims.
“As the clock ticks down,” Messina said, “it’s not just desperation we’re seeing. It’s also dishonesty.”
In an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Axelrod vowed to return to the program after Election Day and “shave off my mustache of 40 years if we lose” Pennsylvania, Minnesota, or Michigan.
Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, responded by accusing the Obama campaign of “desperate and flailing spin.”
“President Obama is playing defense in states that were once considered safely in his column,” Beeson said. “If the other side was on the move, they would be expanding into states that John McCain won in 2008; instead, they’re fighting to maintain turf in traditionally Democratic states.”
Romney also backed FEMA Wednesday, attempting to further distance himself from comments made in 2011 suggesting he would reduce federal disaster relief.
“I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said in a statement. “As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission.’’
Romney’s comments last year during a primary debate in New Hampshire were interpreted by some as a call to eliminate FEMA.
“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,” Romney said then. “And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
Romney’s statement Wednesday was a change of tone since Monday, when his campaign said he has no plan to shut down FEMA but emphasized his belief “that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions.”Tracy Jan of the Globe staff contributed reporting. Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.