TAMPA, Fla. — President Barack Obama put campaign battleground travel on hold to tour the ravaged New Jersey coast Wednesday, while down-to-the-wire campaigning resumed in swing state Florida that is critical to Republican Mitt Romney's victory plan.
Obama is emphasizing his incumbent's role for a third straight day, skipping voter contact to meet with officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Washington headquarters and visit victims of Hurricane Sandy around Atlantic City. The president planned to resume campaign travel Thursday with gusto, with stops in Nevada, Colorado and Wisconsin, before both candidates descend on Ohio Friday.
Obama left Wednesday's sharp-elbowed politicking to Vice President Joe Biden, who accused Romney of perpetrating "an outrageous lie" in an ad airing in Ohio that suggests Obama's policies are shipping Jeep manufacturing to China. Biden told Florida voters the ads are "scurrilous" and "one of the most flagrantly dishonest ads I can ever remember in my career," which stretches more than 40 years.
Romney's campaign has stood by the ad, which also was criticized by auto executives. "Their comments don't refute anything in our ad," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
Superstorm Sandy has created an air of uncertainty in Romney's Boston headquarters. Aides report that their internal polling offers a better outlook than recent public polling that gives Obama an edge in some swing states, but they concede that the national distraction has frozen any momentum Romney had coming out of this month's debates.
Romney's final travel schedule is not yet set, but aides suggest he will focus his time in traditional swing states instead of traveling to less competitive areas where the campaign is trying to expand the map. This week, for example, he is scheduled to focus on Florida, Virginia and Ohio with a brief stop in Wisconsin. But the campaign is leaving open the possibility that Romney makes a surprise visit to a state like Pennsylvania, given their recent investment in television advertising there.
Florida is among the most closely fought and the biggest prize among the swing states, with 29 electoral votes. Without victory in Florida, Romney will have an uphill and limited path to electoral victory.
"This is quite a time for the country. We're going through trauma in a major part of the country, the kind of trauma you've experienced here in Florida more than once," Romney said and encouraged donations to the Red Cross. He then launched into a critique of Obama's leadership in tough economic times and said he would do better.
"I don't just talk about change. I actually have a plan to execute change and make it happen," Romney told about 2,000 people gathered in a hangar at Tampa's airport.
Romney scheduled stops in some of the most populous parts of the state, with rallies also planned in Jacksonville and Coral Gables in the Miami area on Wednesday. The Obama campaign dispatched Biden to play defense in Florida on Wednesday, with stops in the smaller, more conservative markets of Sarasota and Ocala aimed at narrowing the margin where Republicans usually fare well.
GOP running mate Paul Ryan was campaigning across his home state of Wisconsin before planning to take his children trick or treating. Wisconsin is part of the Romney-Ryan campaign's eleventh-hour strategy of trying to put Democratic-leaning states in play and forcing Obama to shift resources to areas he has expected to win.
In tempered remarks, Ryan never explicitly criticized Obama and asked for prayers and donations for storm victims. The move reflected advice from his top aides to eschew partisanship for fear of appearing too shrill and strike a more civil tone in his critique of the president heading into the heart of the crisis. Plus, Romney and Ryan are still making attempts to win over moderate and undecided voters who have little patience for unbridled partisanship.
Ryan argued that Wisconsin was a battleground that will help decide the election and urged supporters to work hard for the next week so they have no regrets. "When we wake up a week from this morning, let's make sure we did everything we could," Ryan said.
With recent polls showing independents moving in Romney's direction, campaign advisers say they believe it's in part because of Romney's focus on his record as a pragmatic, get-things-done governor who isn't necessarily hemmed in by ideology. Romney advisers said their internal polling reflects disappointment in what some voters see as Obama's inability to change the culture of Washington and eschew partisanship. They said that Romney's comments during debates about his own record working with Democrats in Massachusetts were well-received.
Rather than use the campaign's final Wednesday to woo voters in tossup states, Obama donned hiking shoes for a disaster tour with New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie. Christie is one of Romney's most prominent supporters, and a frequent Obama critic. But Christie praised Obama's handling of the storm, a political twist the president's visit is sure to underscore.
Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said the president and his campaign agreed that his job was to stay in Washington in face-to-face touch with those responsible for recovery.
But Axelrod added: "We passed a threshold here. And we do have an election on Tuesday. So we owe it to folks to make the final arguments and we're going to do that."
Overall, though, Axelrod said the superstorm "tended to freeze this race. Wherever you think the race is, it tended to freeze the race. Because people are focused on the storm. That's what's been in the news."
Romney's campaign is running ads in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and pro-Romney forces are doing the same in Michigan and New Mexico. Obama was leading in all three, but his campaign is taking the threat seriously. It sent former President Bill Clinton to Minnesota on Tuesday and is buying airtime in all three states.
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Tampa, Fla., Philip Elliott in Eau Claire, Wis., Ben Feller, Charles Babington and Ken Thomas in Washington, Matthew Daly in Sarasota, Fla., Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.