With President Obama getting a bear hug from Chris Christie as he toured storm-battered New Jersey, Mitt Romney is facing an unusual challenge: pushing his way back into the national debate.
Romney strategists are downplaying the brief marriage of convenience between Obama and Christie, who keeps praising the president’s response to Hurricane Sandy while professing not to “give a damn” whether Romney visits the state.
“Governor Christie is doing a job,” Romney adviser Russ Schriefer told reporters Wednesday. “He is governor of a state hit by a very, very horrific storm.”
At the same time, the bromance allowed Obama to don the mantle of bipartisanship, project the image of a take-charge executive, and express empathy for storm victims—not a bad trifecta days before the election.
“I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion,” Christie said in comments that seemed above and beyond the call of duty. Obama returned the praise.
Side by side in their navy windbreakers, the rotund Christie and the lean Obama looked very much the odd couple—and both seemed to revel in their cross-party partnership. All but forgotten is that Christie, who flirted with his own White House run this year, was Romney’s keynote speaker at the Tampa convention.
Republican strategists say Romney’s sidelining by the storm will prove to be a blip on the radar and that the challenger will have no difficulty returning to full campaign mode. The former governor, for his part, did not criticize the president by name on Wednesday, perhaps mindful of seeming overly harsh while television screens are still filled with pictures of devastation in New Jersey and New York.
John Feehery, a former House GOP official, says Romney looked “a little awkward” at what was billed as a storm relief event on Tuesday in Ohio, trying not to sound “overtly political. But he almost had to do that so he could pivot to the campaign again. He’s not going to take the Chris Christie approach: ‘President Obama is doing a great job.’”
Alex Castellanos, a one-time Romney adviser, says the former governor shouldn’t mute his message: “You’re running a campaign to get people out of a burning building. You’re allowed to shout.”
The strategist offered Romney a pungent line of attack: “President Obama stepped in and he’s doing the job he should be doing, great, good for him. Wish he’d done the same on the economy.”
Obama sounded at times like the head of FEMA as he visited stricken beach towns with their broken boardwalks. He gave out an 800 number, said he would push hard to get electricity restored, and promised that local officials would have their calls returned within 15 minutes. Rather than having to defend the record of the last four years or make vague promises about a second term, the president appeared to be kicking butt on behalf of beleaguered residents laid low by the storm.
In a Washington Post/ABC tracking poll out Wednesday, 78 percent of those surveyed rated Obama’s response to the hurricane as excellent or good. Romney’s numbers were 44 percent positive, 21 percent negative, and 35 percent with no opinion—though it is hard to see what else he could have done.
At the same time, likely voters were split between the candidates, 49 to 49 percent, suggesting that respondents were making distinctions between the president’s performance of the last four days and whom they want running the country for the next four years.
Romney has been on the defensive about his debate comments last year suggesting that the states could take over the role now played by FEMA. Spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney’s view of the federal emergency agency is that “being a partner for the states is the best approach.”
With New Jersey in the spotlight, some Republicans are grumbling about Christie’s embrace of Obama. They say he could have followed the approach of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and told Obama that any visit now with a big security contingent would be too disruptive.
But with the governor casting one eye on his own reelection battle, possibly against Newark Mayor Cory Booker, “hugging the president serves Christie’s purposes,” says Feehery.
In any event, he says, Romney has no need to savage the president in the closing days. “Romney should be on a positive message,” Feehery says. “It softens his image post-Sandy and appeals to independent and swing voters.”
Castellanos acknowledged that the storm response has given Obama something of a halo, albeit one that may fade by Election Day. “In stormy seas, people cling to the life raft they’re on,” he says.
But as much as the hurricane has dominated the news, not everyone is in need of a life raft. Sandy’s geographic impact is limited to the Eastern Seaboard—“all the states that Obama has locked up, except Virginia,” Castellanos says. “If I’m in Ohio, I’ve got my own storm to deal with—the economy.”