CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The presidential campaign picked up where it left off before Hurricane Sandy roared ashore, as the bitter, leave-no-attack-unsaid contest steamed ahead Wednesday with less than a week until Election Day.
President Obama spent the day touring the storm-battered New Jersey coastline, and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, carefully avoided attacking him by name as he stepped gingerly back onto the campaign trail.
But their surrogates held little back as they lashed out at the other side in search of any advantage in the tight race.
In Sarasota, Fla., Vice President Biden admonished Romney for a deceptive advertisement in Ohio suggesting that Jeep would move manufacturing jobs to China. Biden called the ad “scurrilous” and “one of the most flagrantly dishonest ads I can ever remember in my political career” — which spans four decades.
At an event 200 miles away in Coral Gables, former Florida governor Jeb Bush said while introducing Romney that Obama is so divisive, he is incapable of bringing Washington together to solve problems.
“His entire strategy is to blame others — starting with my brother, of course,” said Bush, a younger brother of former president George W. Bush.
In an even more stinging rebuke at the same Romney event, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) asserted, falsely, that Obama had traveled to Egypt “to apologize” and to tell the world on behalf of the United States that “we are so sorry for the sacrifices of the Americans for generations.”
Diaz-Balart, one of three Cuban American leaders to address Romney’s South Florida rally, later charged that Obama is ignoring questions about September’s deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi.
“In Libya, they murder our ambassador, kill three other brave Americans, and the president is nowhere to be found to answer what happened,” Diaz-Balart said.
The verbal assault came despite a pledge from Romney adviser Kevin Madden that the campaign would “strike a positive tone” on Wednesday because relief efforts were underway across the Eastern Seaboard.
The mixed messages from both campaigns underscored the tricky politics of the moment — how simultaneously to acknowledge the suffering caused by Hurricane Sandy and to press ahead in the closing days of a hard-fought campaign.
The back-and-forth is likely to return to full force Thursday, when Obama rejoins the campaign trail with stops in Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado. Romney has three rallies scheduled across Virginia: in Roanoke, the Richmond area and Virginia Beach.
On Wednesday, Romney opened his rallies with a plea for donations to support storm victims and a call for national unity. He also stripped from his remarks the harsh attacks on the president that had become staples of his stump speech.
Instead, Romney spoke of the nation coming together as “we’re going through trauma in a major part of the country.” And he called on Americans to come together on Nov. 7, the day after the election. Until then, he said, both candidates would be talking about their differences.
At a morning rally in Tampa, Romney tried to energize his supporters by promising “real change.” He laid out his vision for the country and an economic agenda that includes overhauling the tax code and loosening government regulations — a sharp contrast with the president’s record.
“I believe that this is the year for us to take a different course. I will bring real change and real reform and a presidency that brings us together,” Romney said. “Now, I don’t just talk about change; I actually have a plan to execute change and to make it happen.”
He stressed his promise to work across the aisle with Democrats and govern in a bipartisan fashion.
Meaningful changes to the economy, he said, will require “something that Washington talks about but hasn’t done in a long, long time, and that is truly reach across the aisle and find good Democrats and good Republicans that will come together and find common ground and work in the interest of the American people, not just in the interest of politics.”
Even then, amid Romney’s talk of bipartisan harmony, a supporter in the crowd yelled, “Fire Obama!”