KITTERING, Ohio — Barack Obama spent Tuesday deploying the vast tools of his presidency to combat a raging super storm ravaging the East Coast; rival Mitt Romney took in cans of soup and mandarin oranges for victims.
“Wow, that’s heavy! Good to meet you,” Romney said as he took a full bag of canned food from a supporter, one of hundreds of people waiting in line at a high school arena to offer donations to the man they hope will be the nation’s next president.
But an Ohio sports gym is no White House Situation Room. And there was a startling if unavoidable contrast between the two candidates just one week before the most important election in the world.
Putting campaign duty aside, the US commander in chief embraced his role as steely leader in a time of crisis, while the challenger Romney was reduced to a spectator with no authority during the worst US natural disaster in years.
The Republican nominee made the best of a bad political situation, converting a campaign rally outside Dayton, Ohio into a “storm relief event” where he accepted donations and urged supporters with “heavy hearts” for storm victims to give what they could to help fellow Americans.
“A lot of people are hurting this morning. They were hurting last night, and the storm goes on,” Romney said in brief remarks before getting behind a bank of tables and taking in storm relief donations.
Romney made no mention of the presidential race — and that’s how it should be at such events, said ordained preacher Alan Grubbs, waiting to present a bag of canned beans and vegetables to Romney.
“All Americans should help, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. We should come together because that’s what God would have us do,” the 65-year-old Grubbs told AFP.
“I think politics should step back when it comes to helping our brothers and sisters.”
While Romney avoided political discourse, much of the event had the tone and feel of a rally, with the songs of his standard campaign stops pumping through speakers, a 10-minute video about Romney’s life playing on large screens, and the singer for country act Alabama taking the stage with his band.
In the donation line some supporters handed Romney cash, or checks made out to the American Red Cross. Romney thanked them, turned and gave the donations to an aide.
Carol Landis, 75, a retired General Motors employee from Englewood, Ohio, sat in line in her wheelchair, holding up the Gadsden Flag, the potent symbol of American independence that features the slogan “Don’t Tread On Me.”
She held a bag of donations in her lap — “cans of crab meat and mandarin oranges,” she beamed.
Asked about the campaign feel of the non-campaign event, Landis’s face hardened.
“Obama has destroyed America. We’ve got to get it back, and Romney’s the man,” she said.
High school senior Phillip Gindelberger, who at 17 was just one month too young to vote, was a dedicated Romney supporter who turned heads with his red, white and blue mohawk.
The storm may well impact the election, he said, especially if it prevented some voters in hard-hit areas from voting early or getting to polling stations on November 6.
But he didn’t expect the political imagery — Obama in command and Romney on the sidelines — to have much of an effect.
“Romney helped out here, Obama helped out there,” he said with a shrug. “They both could sway a few votes.”
After 20 minutes on the donations line, Romney braved biting cold and wind to load bags of food and supplies onto a truck outside.
He ignored repeated questions by reporters who asked whether he had plans to visit storm-damaged states, as Obama will on Wednesday, or whether he would do away with the Federal Emergency Management Agency if he were elected.
After two days of canceled campaign events, the political pause appears to be over for Romney, who preparing to dart back out onto the campaign trail.
He flew to crucial battleground Florida, where he has campaign rallies in three cities across the state.