KETTERING, Ohio — It still had the look of a political event, but the tone was different as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney turned Tuesday's planned “victory rally” into a relief effort for victims of a storm whose tentacles reached into Ohio.
There was no political talk, no mention of President Obama. The Republican former governor of Massachusetts spoke just five minutes in the Dayton suburb of Kettering before getting down to work shaking hands with members of the crowd as they delivered bags of food items and helping to box the items for delivery to the South Jersey Chapter of the American Red Cross in Sewell, N.J.
“You make the difference you can,'' he said. “You can't always solve all problems yourself, but you can make a difference in the lives of one or two people as a result of one of two people making an effort."
He likened it to cleaning a high school football field of debris after a big game.
“Today, we're cleaning one lane, if you will,” Mr. Romney said.
Later, while packing the truck with U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, Mr. Romney ignored repeated questions from reporters as to whether his budget cuts would claim the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead agency dealing with the nation’s response to the storm. He previously had talked about turning over at least some of its duties to the states or to the private sector.
Before his arrival at the arena at Fairmont High School, the giant digital screen briefly aired his biography promo shown at his campaign rallies. Then the screen settled into a message telling the estimated crowd of about 2,800 how they could use their cell phones to text contributions to the American Red Cross.
All political signs for the Romney event had been removed from the walls of an arena, but members of the crowd were handed Romney/Ryan yard signs as they left.
Alabama's Randy Owen took up his guitar to perform for the crowd while Mr. Romney, in the jeans and a blue-and-white checkered shirt, worked the box line.
Meanwhile, the President was in Washington dealing with Hurricane Sandy as it progressed through East Coast states. He canceled campaign events that had been set for Cincinnati and Akron on Wednesday.
A Thursday rally at a high school in Springfield, Ohio, was rescheduled for Friday, along with a campaign stop in Lima that day. The Obama campaign has not provided times or locations for the Lima event.
Doors open at 10:15 a.m. at at the Springfield High School event in Clark County.
Vice President Joe Biden canceled his Tuesday rallies in Gambier and at the College of Wooster.
Mr. Romney canceled a second rally that had been planned later today in Elida.
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U.S. Sen. John McCain, who lost Ohio and the election to Mr. Obama in 2008, was not on hand in Kettering as scheduled, but campaigned later Tuesday at an event in Bowling Green with U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel.
"The eyes of the nation, the eyes of the world, will be on the state of Ohio a week from now," Mr. McCain told a small gathering at the Republican Party's "Victory Center" in downtown Bowling Green. "They will be watching. They will be watching this. We may be up late."
Mr. McCain spoke to about 30 volunteers and supporters in the Main Street storefront and urged them to work hard to support Mr. Romney and Mr. Mandel, citing issues such as the Obama Administration's handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya, before shaking hands and posing for photos.
Addressing a group of reporters in the office, Mr. McCain responded to a question about campaign finance reform, an issue he once championed.
"I think it's been a disaster," he said of the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision in 2010, which allowed unrestricted political spending by corporations and unions.
"There is money coming in from places we never knew where it came from," he said. "And I guarantee you there will be scandals ... and corruption, and then there will be reform."
A small table in the office had a case of water and a few canned goods marked for hurricane relief.
Mr. Romney and running mate Paul Ryan still plan rallies at West Chester near Cincinnati and Etna near Columbus on Friday. Ann Romney is expected to lead a women’s rally in Columbus on Thursday.
The Obama campaign turned what has been a routine fund-raising appeal for his campaign into an appeal for the Red Cross.
“This is a serious storm, but we are going to do what it takes to keep people safe and secure, and make sure the communities affected get the assistance they need,’’ Mr. Obama wrote. “FEMA is working with state and local governments to respond effectively. We all owe a debt of thanks to the first responders who will be dealing with the immediate impact of the storm.’’
Tim and Samantha Tschida of Springfield were already planning to attend the Romney rally, but they said they will take Mr. Romney's advice and donate to the Red Cross, most likely through the texting number displayed on the big screens.
“Obviously, the nation is focused on this storm and what it's doing to the millions of people who don't have power and have gotten killed,'' Ms. Tschida said. “I think if you can turn an event like this into an opportunity to pool resources, I think it's a good thing. ... There will be a time to pick the [political] message back up.”
But Mr. Tschida said Mr. Romney could probably not afford to be completely absent from Ohio this close to the election, particularly with the polls so tight for a state deemed critical to his path to the White House.
“Ohio's so important,'' he said. “If he's in New Jersey, there's not much he can do there.''
Most polls have the race either dead even or with a slight edge for Mr. Obama.
Blade reporter Kate Giammarise contributed to this story.
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