Updated at 5:20 p.m.
President Obama visited one of the hardest-hit areas in Hurricane Sandy’s destructive path Wednesday, joining New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) — one of his most outspoken critics and a chief surrogate to rival Mitt Romney — for a tour of the damage the storm inflicted on the Garden State.
“We are here for you. And we will not forget. We will follow up to make sure that you get all the help you need until you’ve rebuilt,” Obama said at an afternoon news conference.
Obama and Christie reviewed the storm’s impact on New Jersey from the air for a little over an hour before meeting with residents on the ground. Both stressed that restoring power to residents who have lost it is the top priority.
Speaking at a community center being used as a shelter, Obama praised Christie’s response to Sandy, and said the country’s been watching the Garden State in the wake of the storm.
“I want to let you know that your governor is working overtime,” the president said, later adding: ”The main message I wanted to send is the entire country has been watching what’s been happening. Everybody knows how hard Jersey’s been hit.”
Christie, who called Sandy “the worst storm that I’ve seen in my lifetime in the state,” lauded the president for making the trip to the Garden State.
“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,” Christie said.
Air Force One landed in Atlantic City just after 1 p.m. local time. On the tarmac, Christie greeted the president, who was accompanied by Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate. The three immediately boarded a helicopter to survey the storm’s damage and later met with locals impacted by Sandy.
From North Carolina to New England, Sandy’s high winds, storm surges, rain and snow have left thousands without power and claimed the lives of at least 59 people, according to the Associated Press.
Obama, who was previously scheduled to be on the campaign trail this week, canceled stops Monday and Tuesday to monitor the storm from Washington. He convened a video conference in the White House Situation Room with top advisers Tuesday morning and held a conference call with utility executives later in the day. The president met with top officials once again for a briefing Wednesday morning before he departed Washington. Obama’s trip to New Jersey was the only travel on his Wednesday schedule.
As he reviewed storm damage with Christie in Atlantic City, where Sandy made landfall Monday night, Obama joined a political opponent who hasn’t been shy about criticizing his administration. In recent days, though, Christie has appeared inclined to put politics aside in the wake of the deadly storm that slammed the East Coast. He applauded Obama’s response to New Jersey’s post-storm needs in a Tuesday morning interview.
“The federal government’s response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president, personally, he has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area,” Christie said on NBC’s “Today” show. Obama ordered federal aid be sent to New Jersey, along with New York, West Virginia and Virginia, which were also impacted by Sandy.
While the president is visiting New Jersey in an official capacity, there also is a potential political upside to his trip. Six days before Election Day, it’s an opportunity for him to appear to be working in a bipartisan manner alongside one of his chief critics. It’s also a chance for Obama to remind voters of his commander-in-chief credentials.
For Christie, too, there is potential for political gain. The governor could face a tough reelection campaign in 2013. Appearing with Obama in the Democrat-leaning state could boost his own cross-party appeal ahead of what could be a bruising battle in 2013. What’s more, handling a natural disaster with command and control could win him praise from voters.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One that Obama decided to visit New Jersey because of the impact of the storm on the Garden State, adding that this is no time for politics.
“New Jersey was, by many measures, the hardest-hit state — I believe that’s correct — and it is entirely appropriate for the president to visit New Jersey and receive updates on the efforts there to recover and to view firsthand the damage inflicted by Sandy. This is not a time for politics,” Carney said.
When asked by a reporter Wednesday whether Christie’s praise of Obama annoyed him, senior Romney strategist Russ Schriefer — who was an adviser on Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign — said Christie is simply doing what he was elected to do.
“Governor Christie is doing his job,” Schriefer said. “He is the governor of a state that has been hit by a very, very horrific storm, there’s tremendous damage, people have lost their lives and he’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing as the governor of New Jersey. And the president is doing what he needs to do as president, and this is a case of the governor doing his job. So I think that’s it.”
Obama had halted his campaign activities through Wednesday, but will return to the stump Thursday. While he has remained focused on Sandy, Obama’s surrogates have been barnstorming the battleground states most likely to decide the outcome of the election. Former president Bill Clinton stumped for Obama in Iowa Wednesday morning and was slated to join a campaign event in Wisconsin later in the evening.
Romney, who canceled campaign rallies Tuesday to participate in storm relief efforts, was back on the campaign trail Wednesday for three stops in the key swing state of Florida. He was joined on the stump by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) and Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who is also a U.S. Senate candidate.
On the Democratic side, Vice President Biden stumped for Obama in Florida on Wednesday.
A top Obama campaign adviser told reporters Wednesday that the president had been determined to monitor Sandy from Washington in advance of its impact and stay in close contact with the principals involved in the preparation and relief efforts.
“Our judgment was until we got a handle on the scope of this disaster, the president’s job, and this was his judgment, was to remain in Washington and in touch face-to-face with those who were responsible,” top Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod told reporters Wednesday morning.
Obama will campaign Thursday in Green Bay, Wis., Las Vegas and Boulder, Colo.
Philip Rucker contributed to this post.