Romney takes cautious approach in return to presidential campaign trail

Mitt Romney avoided direct attacks on President Obama on Wednesday at his first political event since Hurricane Sandy's landfall.

Meanwhile, Obama spent the morning in Washington coordinating the federal response to the catastrophic storm, but will return to the campaign trail full time on Thursday.

Romney's rally in Tampa, Fla., was his first campaign stop since Monday and precedes Obama's visit to New Jersey, where the president will tour the storm damage with Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

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The GOP nominee offered a cautious approach in his return to the presidential campaign trail. Projection screens to the side of the stage urged donations to the Red Cross, and Romney asked supporters to keep the victims in their thoughts and prayers.

"We love all of our fellow citizens, we come together in times like this and we want to make sure they have a speedy recovery," Romney said.

He did advocate for his candidacy, saying "people coming together is also what I believe will happen on Nov. 7" — the day after the election and a reflection of his confidence.

But his stump speech had been scrubbed of his customary attacks on Obama, with the Republican nominee putting his emphasis on times he reached across the aisle as governor of Massachusetts.

"It was not lost on me I would get nothing done unless I was able to have a relationship of respect and trust with people across the aisle," Romney said.

The closest Romney came to a direct critique of Obama was declaring that he doesn't "just talk about change — I actually have a plan to execute change and make it happen." His reluctance to attack the president head-on was almost certainly the result of an attempt to strike the right tone as much of the Northeast continues to struggle in the aftermath of the deadly storm.

Obama plans to return to the campaign trail on Thursday, with stops planned in Green Bay, Wis., Boulder, Colo., and Las Vegas.

On Wednesday the president attended a briefing at FEMA headquarters in Washington and will be in New Jersey in the afternoon.

But while the candidates themselves might have been projecting restraint Wednesday, their campaigns were back in full force.

On a conference call with reporters, Obama campaign aides sought to debunk what they called the myth of the Romney wave. 

"We have the math and they have the myth," Obama senior strategist David Axelrod said on the call.

And he accused the Romney camp of attempting to secure battleground victories in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, as "far-fetched as they may be."

On Tuesday, the Romney campaign announced a new $2 million ad buy in the Philadelphia suburbs, while a poll from the Detroit News found Romney only 3 points behind in Michigan. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign dispatched former President Bill Clinton to Minnesota for a pair of rallies and matched the Romney ad buy in Pennsylvania — evidence Democrats could actually be concerned about the states, which had been considered easy wins for the president.

Axelrod, seeking to project confidence, went as far as to say he would shave his iconic mustache if Obama lost the states, and said the campaign was only matching ad buys in Democratic states because "it's the prudent thing to do."

"We're not going to cede any state in this race," he said.

Axelrod accused the Romney camp of having "faux-mentum" and added, "What you're seeing from the other campaign are a series of desperate moves."

Republicans quickly struck back, noting that on the call Axelrod had declined to wager his mustache on a swing state like Virginia.

In a memo from the Republican National Committee, spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said Democrats were trying to spin disappointing early-voting performances in Florida and Nevada, or account for independents breaking for Romney in crucial swing states like Ohio and Virginia.

"Republican absentee and early vote activity is already at 94 percent of 2008 absentee and early votes cast in the battleground states with party registration," Kukowski said. "Democrat activity is barely over 82 percent of 2008 pre-Election Day votes cast."

The aggressive posturing by both campaigns, even as the candidates looked for a soft return to the campaign trail, appeared to foreshadow a breakneck final few days of campaigning. With polls showing a dead heat — a new survey from ABC News and The Washington Post gave Romney a single-point lead among likely voters — Obama and Romney will be scrapping for votes in the campaign's final days.

Romney, who was joined by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Rep. Connie Mack — the Republican Senate candidate — has two additional Florida events Wednesday in Miami and Jacksonville, before heading to Virginia for a full day of campaigning on Thursday.