Storm relief takes center stage at Romney event

In an event that had originally been slated as a rally, then was cancelled, then rescheduled, then put on hold and finally changed to a storm relief effort, GOP nominee Mitt Romney appeared at the James S. Trent Arena in Kettering Tuesday but kept his comments brief and barely acknowledged next Tuesday’s election.

The change in tone may be temporary, as both Romney and President Barack Obama are cautiously making plans to return to the campaign trail, scheduling and rescheduling events with Ohio voters in hopes of grabbing momentum in the final days of the 2012 campaign.

In the wake of the destruction from the megastorm on the East Coast, campaign organizers recast the Kettering event as a storm relief effort, asking the estimated 2,500 who came to bring canned goods and supplies for those affected.

Though organizers ran the same biographical video about Romney run at every campaign event, Romney did not make his typical stump speech, and shunned a dress shirt and tie in favor of jeans and a checkered work shirt.

“We have heavy hearts, as you know, with all the suffering going on,” Romney said. “There are a lot of people who were hurting this morning, who were hurting last night.”

He said he spoke with governors in the affected areas, and thanked those who brought canned goods and supplies. “Your generosity this morning touches my heart,” he said.

While Romney greeted people in the crowd, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Centerville, and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, helped sort the donated goods. Ashlie Smith, 18, a Wright State University student, said she was disappointed initially when the campaign cancelled the rally. But when she heard it was on again, this time as a charity event, “my eyes just lit up,” she said.

Obama, meanwhile, cancelled planned events today in Cincinnati and Akron, and delayed a planned Thursday night trip to Springfield. Instead, the Springfield event will occur on Friday morning, and the campaign plans to announce more Ohio stops through Friday and possibly the weekend.

In remarks at the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C.., Obama called on the federal government to avoid bureaucracy and red tape and “get resources where they’re needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration.”

As one indication of how the storm had turned politics on its head, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican and staunch supporter of Romney, complimented Obama for his work on the storm.

“I have to give the president great credit,” Christie said. “He’s been on the phone with me three times in the last 24 hours. He’s been very attentive, and anything that I’ve asked for, he’s gotten to me.”

Romney was grilled by reporters about whether he would abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency if he is elected president. During one of the Republican debates, Romney indicated he’d be inclined to send the responsibility for disaster response back to the states or the private sector.

Romney ignored the questions, and aides later said he did not plan to abolish the federal disaster response agency.

“Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” said Chris Maloney, a spokesman for the Romney campaign. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said it was appropriate for both candidates to cease campaign activities Tuesday, but that it might be appropriate to move on with the campaign beginning today.

“In my view, it just sort of froze everything in place while all this terrible tragedy fixated the attention of the American people,” he said. “Now, I think we’re ready to get back into this campaign.”

Asked if the storm slowed Romney’s momentum, Scott Jennings, Romney’s Ohio campaign coordinator, said, “I’m not sure…It’s hard to say what impact it has over the race. I just think in the last few weeks you’ve seen a trend up towards Romney in Ohio and it’s also happening nationally, and you’ve seen a kind of flattening out of Obama.”

Tuesday’s event in Kettering showed that helping with the storm’s devastation can be a slippery slope: The campaign had asked for nonperishable donations despite the fact that the Red Cross does not typically accept or solicit individual donations or collections of items because of the extra labor involved with sorting, cleaning, repackaging and transporting such items.

George Haddow, a deputy chief of staff for FEMA during the Clinton Administration, said while the instinct might be noble, the results might burden already-taxed charitable organizations.

“The instinct of a lot of people who are not in the disaster area is to contribute in-kind,” he said. “Traditionally people have gone to the pantries or gone to their dressers and closets and contributed food and clothing. A lot of times that doesn’t match what’s needed.”

He said often cash donations were better, so charitable organizations could have more flexibility to contribute. The Romney campaign accounted for that as well, posting a number to text to contribute to the Red Cross.

“Whatever the Red Cross is willing to accept we’ll be shipping to them,” Maloney said. “At this point, they’re not willing to put a limit on what they’re willing to accept.”

Many of the Trent visitors praised Romney for transforming what was originally supposed to be a routine campaign stop.

“You can tell this is a campaign that cares people,” said Debbie Bumbalough, 59, a retired nurse who lives Springfield. “He didn’t politicize (the disaster).”

Julie Witt, 57, of Dayton, attended the event wearing a Romney T-shirt with four Romney buttons attached. One of the most colorful buttons showed Romney’s head on the body of Capt. America, a comic book superhero.

“He cares about what’s going on with the nation, and not just about his campaign,” Witt said. “There is a sensitive side of him people need to see.”

Patti King, 57, of Kettering, and her 22-year-old daughter, Kristen King, said they attended because they are undecided voters and wanted to learn more about the Republican presidential candidate.

Although the pair are leaning toward voting for Obama, they said they admired Romney for his campaign’s response to a national crisis.

“We were impressed that he kept his focus on disaster relief,” Patti King said.

Not everyone who attended can vote on Tuesday. Fairmont senior Phillip Gindel said he was disappointed when he realized his 18th birthday would fall a month too late for him to vote.

But Gindel, who added red and blue to his blond Mohawk, said if he could vote, he’d vote for Romney.

Joe Hallett of the Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report.

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