Kathleen Hennessey
and Seema Mehta
Tribune Washington Bureau

BRIGANTINE, N.J.: As relief workers began clearing up the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney avoided overt partisan politics Wednesday. But with a mere six days to go before Election Day, and early voting under way across the nation, it was impossible to view the men’s actions without a political lens.

Obama traveled to New Jersey to survey damages and appear alongside Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is among Romney’s highest-profile surrogates and who typically offers scathing criticism of the president.

They shook hands warmly and took a helicopter tour of the damage before visiting a shelter in Brigantine where they lauded each other.

Christie said Obama “means it” when he says he’s working hard for the victims of the storm, praised the president for their “great working relationship,” and for the “personal concern and compassion” he has shown for the local residents.

Obama assured the crowd that Christie is “working overtime” for them, is at “the top of my list” of people to thank for being “responsive” and “aggressive in making sure that the state got out in front of this incredible storm.”

A spokesman for the president said the visit had nothing to do with politics, but the visuals that dominated nightly newscasts were of Obama working with a Republican governor and a reminder of the role of federal government at times of crises.

“We face hard times and we get back up, the reason we get back up is we look out for each other and don’t leave anyone behind,” Obama said after a tour of some of the damage, a reminder of one of the central differences between himself and Romney and their view of the role of government.

Romney sought to clarify comments he had made last year that suggested FEMA ought to be handed over to the states or possibly privatized.

“I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” he said in a news release. “As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.”

National surveys make the race a tight one for the popular vote, with Romney ahead by a statistically insignificant point or two in some, and Obama in others.

Both sides claim an advantage from battleground states where the race also is tight.

Obama’s aides contend he is ahead or tied in all of them, while Romney’s team counters that his campaign is expanding in its final days into what had long been deemed safe territory for the president in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Stumping with sensitivity

The GOP nominee, who had stopped stumping for votes as the storm bore down on the eastern seaboard, returned to the campaign trail Wednesday, holding three rallies in Florida and repeatedly highlighting the plight of the storm victims.

“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 at a rally in an airport hangar in Tampa, before gesturing at monitors urging people to text donations to the Red Cross. “Please, if you have an extra dollar or two, send them along and keep the people ... who’ve been damaged either personally or through their property, keep them in your thoughts and prayers.”

Romney never mentioned the president’s name or directly criticized him, a decision his strategists said was driven by the storm.

But while Romney skirted the president, his surrogates did not, notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as he introduced Romney at a rally at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

“Washington has to begin to come together. Do you honestly think that this president is capable of bringing people together?” Bush asked, and the crowd screamed “No!” “His entire strategy is to blame others — starting with my brother, of course. Basically, he blames every possible thing rather than having the humility to be able to reach out and to find common ground.”

Biden, Ryan duel over jobs

The two running mates, meanwhile, had no problem slashing at their opponents.

Vice President Joe Biden accused Romney of airing the most “scurrilous” and “flagrantly dishonest ads” he could remember, saying the Romney campaign’s use of ads suggesting automakers were taking jobs overseas shows desperation and a lack of character unbecoming of a presidential hopeful.

Biden noted that the ads, which imply that the auto bailout overseen by Obama prompted Chrysler to move jobs overseas and GM to lay off workers, are intended to scare Ohio voters who have just recently started to recover after years of loss, and that the claims have been denounced by officials with both companies

“They called it ... a leap that would be difficult even for professional circus acrobats,” Biden said.

Romney running mate Paul Ryan repeated the ad’s attack on Obama while campaigning in Racine, Wis.

“The facts, they speak for themselves. President Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy, taxpayers still stand to lose $25 billion in the president’s politically managed bankruptcy,” Ryan said. “These companies, Chrysler in particular we know this story, are now choosing to expand manufacturing overseas. ... Those facts are inconvenient for the president but no one disputes them. The president and the vice president, the problem is they simply can’t defend their record.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.