KENNER, La. — Just days after Hurricane Isaac made landfall in Louisiana, the intensifying presidential campaign arrived in full force Friday as Mitt Romney toured damaged areas, his visit drawing attacks from several leading Democrats who said his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, had tried to block disaster relief funds last fall.
The White House announced Friday that President Obama would visit the area on Monday, moving both campaigns more deeply into the politics of disaster relief. It’s an issue that once tripped up President George W. Bush, who was pilloried for his reaction to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
Romney made his trip the day after the Republican National Convention; Obama’s visit will come the day before the Democrats’ convention, raising questions about whether both sides were using Louisiana as a political photo opportunity.
“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,’’ Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “It is an affront for Mitt Romney to go to Louisiana given what the Ryan budget would have meant for our emergency preparedness.”
Stuart Stevens, Romney’s top political strategist, dismissed the criticism. He told reporters that the trip was appropriate, noting that Romney has been in touch with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R), and came to Louisiana at Jindal’s invitation.
Asked whether it was important for Romney to visit the Gulf Coast area before Obama, Stevens said that was not a factor. “The convention’s over, this is happening,’’ Stevens said. “Now it’s not as disruptive because it’s not in the middle of the storm.’’
Obama planned to visit Louisiana on Monday “to meet with local officials and view ongoing response and recovery efforts to Hurricane Isaac,” the White House said. Because of that trip, Obama canceled a planned campaign visit to Cleveland on Monday as part of a tour of swing states ahead of next week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. But he was sticking with the rest of a three-day trip starting Saturday to Iowa, Colorado and Ohio.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday aboard Air Force One that Obama’s trip to Louisiana was planned before Romney announced his own visit to the state. “Obviously when you’re president of the United States, coordinating travel carries with it unique logistical challenges,” Carney said. “It was the assessment of the president’s team working with all the people involved in operations as well as people on the ground that Monday was a good day.”
On Friday afternoon, Obama made a call to a group of local officials from the affected regions of Louisiana and Mississippi as well as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to discuss the progress of relief efforts.
Isaac left the Gulf Coast behind on Friday but not before causing widespread flooding and wind damage, especially in Louisiana. It also affected the Republican convention in Tampa, causing the GOP to delay the start of its events from Monday to Tuesday. At least six people were killed in Mississippi and Louisiana by the storm, which dumped as much as 16 inches of rain in some areas.
On Friday, Romney met with residents and local officials in the town of Lafitte who were affected by the damage and briefly spoke with Jindal.
“We really appreciate you coming here,” Jindal said.
“I appreciate the chance to be here,” Romney replied. “I have a lot of questions for you.” The two discussed evacuation procedures and the contributions of the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other organizations. “Did the water come from the sky, or the rivers, or the ocean?” Romney asked. Jindal’s response was not audible to reporters.
The president visited El Paso on Friday to speak to troops and veterans about a new initiative to expand mental health services for returning troops. .
“Coming home can be its own struggle, especially for wounded warriors, so we’ve poured tremendous resources into this effort,” Obama said, the soldiers listening to him shouting “Hooah” after almost every line. “Part of ending these wars responsibly is caring for those who fought in them.”
Before leaving for the Gulf Coast, Romney had urged Americans to “hold us accountable” for campaign promises as he rallied hundreds of supporters on an airport tarmac in Lakeland, Fla. The Romney-Ryan ticket is looking to capitalize on momentum from the convention by stumping through key battleground states.
A day after he claimed the nomination with a convention speech in which he pledged to fix the nation’s economy, Romney said in Lakeland that he felt “embarrassed” by Thursday night’s program at the GOP convention, which included moving personal testimonials as well as his own acceptance speech, which was at times emotional. “Some people were overly generous, but I appreciated it,’’ he said.
The campaign resumed as chatter continued about actor-director Clint Eastwood’s unusual speech to the convention. At times rambling, Eastwood spent the bulk of his 10 minutes in prime time addressing Obama in the form of an empty chair. Democrats mocked his performance as thousands of people weighed in on social media, though Republicans defended the Hollywood icon.
With many wondering whether Eastwood’s speech had been screened or approved by the Romney campaign, officials said Friday that it was impromptu and that Eastwood did not rehearse with convention producers.
In Texas, Obama talked privately with a group of soldiers at Fort Bliss, home of the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery School, and delivered a public speech on the post before returning to Washington later Friday.
Obama has made a number of appearances this year on military installations, and his campaign has targeted service personnel, veterans and their families by emphasizing his popular policies of drawing down troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his stewardship of the mission to kill al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Markon reported from Washington, and Gardner reported from Fort Bliss. William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.