POLITICS

Obama, Christie, in apparent bromance as Romney struggles on the sidelines

10/31/2012 05:03 EDT | Updated 12/31/2012 05:12 EST
WASHINGTON - Barack Obama and his erstwhile foe, New Jersey's Republican governor, surveyed superstorm Sandy's destruction on Wednesday as polls suggest the president has a slim but steady lead over Mitt Romney in key swing states mere days before next week's election.

Obama and Chris Christie made an odd political couple given the governor is one of Romney's top surrogates and has been harshly critical of the president — until, that is, Sandy decimated his beloved Jersey shore.

Christie has since heaped praise on Obama for his handling of the crisis.

"It's really important to have the president of the United States acknowledge all the suffering that's going on here in New Jersey and I appreciate it very much," said Christie, with Obama by his side as they visited an emergency shelter in Brigantine, N.J., following an hour-long helicopter tour of the state's devastated coastline.

"He has worked incredibly closely with me since before the storm hit. I think this is our sixth conversation since the weekend. It's been a great working relationship."

Obama returned the compliment: "I want to let you know that your governor is working overtime," he told dozens of people holed up at the shelter.

"The entire country has been watching what's been happening. Everybody knows how hard Jersey has been hit," he said.

Romney, meantime, marginalized and muted by Sandy, tried to strike the right tone in a campaign appearance in Florida.

He once again steered clear of explicitly criticizing Obama, sticking to a largely positive message as he continued to urge his supporters to donate to the Red Cross in order to help Sandy's victims.

"I will bring real change and real reform and a presidency that brings us together," he said. "Now, I don't just talk about change; I actually have a plan to execute change and to make it happen."

And after he dodged repeated questions about his stance on the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Ohio on Tuesday, Romney's campaign said Wednesday that the Republican presidential hopeful sees the value in the disaster relief agency.

"Gov. Romney believes in a very efficient and effective disaster relief response, and he believes one of the ways to do that is put a premium on states and their efforts to respond to these disasters," senior adviser Kevin Madden told reporters.

"That's why they call them first responders — they're first to respond, the states. Traditionally they've been best at responding to these disasters. But he does believe FEMA has a really important role there and that being a partner for these states is the best approach."

Romney's comments in a primary season debate last year that federal funding for disaster relief is "immoral" have come back to haunt him now that the agency is playing a critical role in helping the East Coast recover from Sandy.

The monster storm has underscored a central debate in the campaign — big versus small government. Obama has long argued that government plays an important role in the lives of citizens; Romney believes in shrinking government in favour of private sector involvement.

Sandy, indeed, has seriously affected both presidential campaigns.

The storm gave Obama a time-out from an increasingly bruising boxing match of a campaign, allowing him to show presidential gravitas in the face of what Christie has called an "unthinkable" national disaster.

Romney, meantime, has struggled to remain relevant as the media focuses on the aftermath of the storm. Even Romney's campaign has acknowledged the difficulties.

"It interrupted the news cycle at a time when there were favourable horse race stories for Mitt," Tom Rath, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, told National Public Radio on Wednesday.

"In a campaign, you don't get to design the racetrack, you play the cards you're dealt."

Romney has also been dealing with an unexpected headache brought on by the sudden Obama-Christie bromance, with pundits assigning various motives to the New Jersey governor's effusive praise of the president.

On Tuesday, Christie said the president has been "outstanding" in his response to the crisis and was tersely dismissive of questions about when he might welcome Romney to New Jersey to survey the damage.

The theories range from the governor's 2016 presidential aspirations — that he's impatient and doesn't want to wait till 2020 to run, so an Obama victory this year is in Christie's political interests — to a simple desire to secure as much federal aid for New Jersey as possible.

Madden wouldn't say whether Romney agreed with Christie's glowing assessment of Obama's handling of the crisis.

"I believe the response is still going on so I'm not in a position to qualify the response by the federal government. I believe it's still ongoing," Madden said.

The president resumes campaigning on Thursday, making stops in Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado.

His return to the campaign trail comes as polls suggests Romney's October momentum has stalled and the president is maintaining his edge in the critical battleground states that will determine the outcome of next Tuesday's election.

A new New York Times/CBS News poll — conducted before Sandy battered the heavily populated East Coast — suggests Obama is ahead of Romney nationally by one percentage point.

The survey also suggests he has a narrow lead in Florida and Virginia, while he's five points ahead of Romney in Ohio.

A University of Cincinnati poll showed Obama ahead by two points in Ohio, at 48 to 46 per cent, while a survey by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling had him ahead 50 to 45.

The so-called Buckeye State is proving the most critical of all the battlegrounds in next week's election since it will help Obama lock up the 270 electoral college votes he needs to win a second term.

The Romney campaign is dismissive of the polls, predicting their man will benefit from a last-minute wave of momentum in the days to come.

David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, mocked the "myth of the wave" in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, pointing out that the president has a substantial edge in early voting, making Romney's path to victory even more daunting.

"This professed momentum from the Romney campaign is really faux-mentum," he said.