By Nancy Benac and Steve Peoples/The Associated Press
LAND O’LAKES, Fla. — Juggling politics and storm preparations, Mitt Romney dangled a plea for bipartisanship before early voters in Florida on Saturday as Barack Obama worked to nail down tiny New Hampshire’s four electoral votes. Both campaigns scrambled to steer clear of a most unlikely October surprise, a superstorm barreling up the East Coast.
With just 10 days left in an extraordinarily tight race, Hurricane Sandy had both campaigns ripping up carefully mapped-out itineraries as they worked to maximize voter turnout and avoid any suggestion that they were putting politics ahead of public safety.
The campaigns pressed every possible angle in search of advantage — even paying attention to punctuation.
Obama’s campaign signs for months have said: “Forward.” Now they say: “Forward!”
Romney, who has been striking a more moderate tone as he courts women and independents in the campaign’s home stretch, campaigned across Florida with a pledge to “build bridges” with the other party.
He coupled that message with digs at Obama for “shrinking from the magnitude of the times” and advancing an agenda that lacks vision. Noting that Obama supporters like to chant “four more years” at the president’s campaign rallies, Romney picked up on his crowd’s own chant at the Pensacola Civic Center and said: “I like ’10 more days’ a lot better.”
His warm-up act was more biting: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told the crowd that Obama was advancing “the ideas of countries that people come here to get away from.” Pressed later on what countries he was referring to, Rubio said, “any big-government country in the world” and specifically referred to Mexico and Latin America.
Obama hauled his campaign to New Hampshire, where he told volunteers at a Teamsters hall in Manchester that: “We don’t know how this thing is going to play out. These four electoral voters right here could make all the difference.”
It takes 270 electoral votes to win the election. Obama is ahead in states and the District of Columbia representing 237 electoral votes; Romney has a comfortable lead in states with 191 electoral votes. The rest lie in nine contested states that are too close to call, New Hampshire among them.
The president adjusted his campaign speech at a Nashua rally to appeal to voters in low-tax New Hampshire, hammering Romney for raising taxes and fees as governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
Obama accused Romney of running in Massachusetts on a pledge to lower taxes, then making life more expensive for the middle class after taking office.
“All he’s offering is a big rerun of the same policies,” Obama told a crowd of 8,500 gathered at an outdoor rally on an unseasonably warm October day.
The president said Romney even raised fees in Massachusetts on obtaining a birth certificate, “which would have been expensive for me.” It was a veiled reference to opponents of the president who have incorrectly said he was born outside the United States. Copies of his birth certificate have been in high demand.
The candidates worked to lock down every possible early vote without intruding on emergency preparations as the storm’s expected track looked to affect at least four battleground states: North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire.
Romney scrapped plans to campaign in Virginia on Sunday, and switched his schedule for the day to Ohio. At a rally in Kissimee, Fla., he urged supporters to keep those in the storm’s path “in your mind and in your hearts.”
“You know how tough hurricanes can be,” he told the Floridians.
Vice President Joe Biden canceled a Saturday rally in coastal Virginia Beach, Va., to allow local officials there to focus on disaster preparedness and local security concerns.
But he went ahead with an appearance in Lynchburg, which is inland. Biden said Romney and Ryan are fleeing from their record to appear more moderate than they are. They “are counting on the American people to have an overwhelming case of amnesia.”
Plans for son Beau Biden, the Delaware attorney general, to join his father in Virginia were scrapped when he was called up by the National Guard to help with the storm.
Obama canceled Monday appearances in Prince William County, Virginia on Monday, and Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday so he could monitor Hurricane Sandy as it moves ashore. He did move up his planned Monday departure for Florida to Sunday night to beat the storm and planned a Monday stop in Youngstown, Ohio, before returning to the White House.
En route to New Hampshire, Obama held an airborne conference call with administration officials about the federal government’s role in minimizing storm damage and a ensuring speedy recovery effort.
Campaign spokesman Jennifer Psaki said the Obama team was continuing to promote early voting as something that provides flexibility for busy families, but she added that with the storm headed for shore, “safety comes first, and that’s the case with early voting as well.”
Romney’s trip to Florida, with three events across the state, was timed to coincide with the first day of in-person early voting in a state that went for Obama four years ago and where 29 electoral votes are up for grabs this time. Both campaigns already have been working furiously to gain the advantage in the state’s vote-by-mail program, an area where Republicans typically have been stronger.
“I need you to vote early!” Romney told supporters in Land O’Lakes.
Republican Rep. Paul Ryan worked his way across rainy, chilly Ohio, on a two-day bus trip, with his family in tow. At a factory in New Philadelphia, Ryan stressed the hit that manufacturing industries have taken over the last four years and promised more coal jobs, natural gas jobs and increased military spending if Romney is elected.
Speaking to more than 1,000 supporters on the factory floor at Gradall Industries, Ryan told voters: “You know it’s you. You know what you have in front of you. You know your responsibility.”
Campaign 2012 was serious business, with so little time left and the storm complicating the end game, but Ryan’s children helped to lighten the tone. His 7-, 9- and 10-year-olds scampered between parts bins and heavy chains at the factory.
Nine-year-old Charlie waved the peace sign and mugged for cameras, prompting his mother, Janna Ryan, to shake her head and declare, “I don’t know where he gets it. It’s kind of crazy.”
During a later stop at a bakery in Circleville, Ohio, 10-year-old daughter Liz told the bakery clerk that her dad was “sugar-free except for doughnuts and ice cream.”
“And apple-fritters,” Ryan agreed.
Obama, for his part, made a stop at the Common Man Merrimack, a restaurant where he toasted patrons with a Common Man Ale, saying: “To voting. To America. Doesn’t matter what party.”
The campaigns and their allies kept up a steady stream of TV and radio ads in the battleground states. The right-leaning Americans for Job Security made a rare purchase of Philadelphia airtime, amounting to $1.2 million, for pro-Romney ads. While a few independent groups have tried to make Pennsylvania competitive for Romney, neither Obama nor Romney has devoted ad resources to the state, which is expected to go for Obama.
Benac reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Ohio, Julie Pace in New Hampshire and Matthew Daly in Virginia contributed to this report.
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