White House challenger Mitt Romney rushed to storm-ravaged New Orleans on Friday in a bid to burnish his presidential credentials ahead of his November battle with Barack Obama.
Coming off the back of a rousing Republican convention, Romneysought to build momentum by taking his new campaign plane to New Orleans, where rescue crews are clearing up after Hurricane Isaac unleashed a torrential downpour.
Obama’s camp swiftly declared the Democratic incumbent would tour the city himself on Monday, but denied that they were playing catch up, insisting they did not want the president’s security detail to disrupt disaster relief.
Seven years ago, New Orleans became a symbol of presidential failure when Obama’s Republican predecessor George W. Bush was widely criticized for the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which left 1,800 dead.
This week’s Hurricane Isaac was a much less devastating storm, and federal flood defenses erected around New Orleans since 2005 spared the city from the flooding of the Katrina disaster, but both candidates want to show resolve.
“The decision to travel on Monday was made before Governor Romney announced his decision to travel to travel to Louisiana on Friday,” an Obama aide said in a call to reporters from Air Force One.
Romney flew to Louisiana in his newly unwrapped campaign plane, unveiled on the first day that the candidate is able to begin spending campaign funds he raised for the general election.
The Republican has $186 million in the bank, compared with some $124 million in reserves for Obama, according to campaign figures.
The two are locked in a bitter, neck-and-neck battle for the White House, and Romney’s decision to head to New Orleans to observe storm damage before the president himself tours the area was be seen as an aggressive move.
Romney’s team announced the last-minute change in Lakeland, Florida where the candidate and his running mate Paul Ryan had scheduled a rally. The campaign cancelled a event planned for later in the day in Virginia.
The switch came immediately after Thursday’s triumphal conclusion of the Republican National Convention, where Romney set the seal on his official candidacy with promise to create millions of new jobs.
“What is needed in our country today is not complicated or profound. It doesn’t take a special government commission to tell us what America needs,” he said in his prime-time pitch. “What America needs is jobs. Lots of jobs.”
The former Massachusetts governor told Americans that Barack Obama had singularly failed to deliver the “hope and change” he promised and that the country must act to save an economy crippled by wrong-headed policies.
Obama’s camp was dismissive, insisting the Republican convention would not change the dynamics of the race, which has seen the incumbent maintain narrow leads over the challenger in most of the swing states he needs for victory.
The Democrats hold their own convention to formally re-nominate Obama from Tuesday next week in Charlotte, North Carolina, and will hope for a bump in support to match whatever new momentum the Republicans won in Tampa.
Senior Obama advisor David Axelrod promised the president would provide the specifics that Romney’s address on Thursday — which he said was packed with personal anecdotes and patriotic platitudes — lacked.
“I think that what people were tuning in hoping to hear were practical solutions to the challenges that we face,” Axelrod told MSNBC.
“You know, what they got were some snarky lines about the president, some gauzy reminiscences about the past and some buzzwords for the base.”
Obama and Romney will hold their first televised presidential debate on October 3 in Denver, Colorado and the nation goes to the polls on November 6.
While Romney’s camp expressed satisfaction with the convention, believing their attempt to humanize the often aloof multimillionaire former CEO was a success, his appearance last night was partially overshadowed.
Immediately before Romney’s address, the campaign wheeled out the 82-year-old film star Clint Eastwood for a bizarre and rambling appearance in which he entertained delegates by talking to an imaginary Obama in an empty chair.
The crowd in the hall lapped up his offbeat jokes, but media pundits and thousands of online social media users mocked the performance, which dominated much of the post-speech television chatter, overwhelming the jobs message.