TAMPA – Newly-minted Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney flew to Louisiana Friday afternoon, touring damage from Hurricane Isaac three days before President Obama—and making abundantly clear that the general election has begun.
Less than 12 hours after he accepted the Republican nomination here, Romney boarded his new campaign plane and flew to Lafitte, La., where he toured an emergency command center with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and sought to project a presidential aura.
“People down here need help,” he said.
The storm, which delayed and at times overshadowed the Republican National Convention, caused flooding in the area but was not as devastating as many had feared. Romney said he was hoping to draw more attention to the area, and the relief efforts underway.
The White House quickly announced plans for Obama to visit Louisiana Monday, a trip that White House press secretary Jay Carney said had been in the works before Romney’s trip was made public.
Obama canceled a campaign event in Cleveland to make room for the trip.
Obama on Friday instead traveled to Texas to meet with American soldiers two years after he formally ended the combat mission in Iraq. It marked a day when Obama is attempting to focus on the military, while Romney tries to comfort victims of a hurricane.
“Today every American can be proud that the United States is safer, the United States is stronger and the United States is more respected in the world,” Obama said as he addressed troops at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Obama, who did not watch the convention speeches on Thursday night, also rebutted Romney’s argument that the current administration is causing lasting damage to the country.
“If you hear anyone trying to say that America is in decline,” he said, “don’t you believe it.”
Obama’s campaign criticized Romney for not mentioning Afghanistan during his acceptance speech on Thursday night. It was the first time since 1952 that a Republican nominee didn’t mention war during an acceptance speech, according to the Associated Press.
“In an almost 45 minute speech Romney didn’t find time to mention our troops in Afghanistan,” Stephanie Cutter, an Obama deputy campaign manager, said on a conference call with reporters.
The back and forth highlighted the heightened tone in the few days between Romney’s nomination at the Republican National Convention here, and the beginning of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.
Romney’s trip to Louisiana—which was a last-minute schedule change and occurred before rallies on Saturday in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Jacksonville, Fla.—came at the invitation of Jindal, according to Romney aides. Jindal, a Republican who had been a potential vice presidential nominee, said he had also asked Obama to come.
“We’re not talking politics. That’s not the right time to do that,” Jindal said. “We’re solely focused on the hurricane and the response.”
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized Romney for making the trip to Louisiana, saying the state would not have been prepared for the hurricane without government assistance that Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul Ryan, has opposed.
Ryan, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, had proposed eliminating $10 billion in disaster spending and instead requiring Congress to cut from elsewhere in the budget to pay for emergencies.
“It is the height of hypocrisy for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to make a pretense of showing sympathy for the victims of Hurricane Isaac when their policies would leave those affected by this disaster stranded and on their own,” Reid said in a statement.
Romney and Ryan had a rally Friday morning in Lakeland, Fla., on their way out of town. In the background was Romney’s new campaign plane, which has “Believe in America” on the top of the fuselage, his website address at the bottom, and a red, white, and blue R on the tail.
Romney launched into several new lines, while also reiterating five broad steps that he believes would improve the economy.
“We’re going to go after these things,” Romney said. “Measure us. Hold us accountable. Do the same with the president. Look, you’re making a choice as to who the servant’s going to be for the nation. Who is the person, who are the people who will lead this country and do what you want to be done?”
Romney also said he thought the convention went well, and professed to be overcome with some of the things said about him.
“So last night you got to know me a little better, with some friends that talked about my life, the things that have been part of my life in the past,” he said. “I was embarrassed from time to time with the nice things that were said. Some people were overly generous, but I appreciated it.”
But in the aftermath of Romney’s speech Thursday night much of the political world was abuzz about actor Clint Eastwood and his bizarre 12-minute convention performance in which he spoke to an empty chair that he pretended President Obama was sitting in.
“So Mr. President, how do you handle – how do you handle promises that you made when you were running for election?” he asked, in remarks that came just as television networks began covering the big night. ”How do you handle it? What do you say to people? Do you just…I know people were wondering.”
He pretended to ask Obama why he had not closed the prison in Guantanamo Bay. “What do you mean, shut up?” he said.
“What? What do you want me to tell Romney?” he asked at another point. “I’m can’t tell him to do that.
“He can’t do that to himself. You’re absolutely crazy. You’re getting as bad as Biden.”
Eastwood’s performance was a rare moment of surprise in an otherwise carefully scripted convention, and it appeared to catch Romney’s campaign advisers, fundraisers, and family off guard. After GOP aides had vetted almost every speech at the convention, Eastwood took the stage with no teleprompter running and delivered impromptu remarks in the most important moments of the convention, minutes before Romney spoke.
“Well, you know, I was grateful for his support and, at the same time, grateful that there were others there that knew Mitt so well that came and stepped forward,” Romney’s wife, Ann, said this morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
When asked if his speech was a surprise, she said, “I, frankly, hadn’t given it much thought. I didn’t know he was even going to come on stage.”
Romney campaign aides defended Eastwood, saying “his ad libbing was a break from all the political speeches, and the crowd enjoyed it.”
“He’s an American icon,” Gail Gitcho, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, told CNN’s Piers Morgan. “You can’t look at him at through the same political lens that you would other politicians. He’s Clint Eastwood.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.