NEW ORLEANS — Mitt Romney looked to capitalize on the Republican National Convention on Friday, rallying supporters in Florida and making a surprise visit to storm-battered Louisiana.
The freshly and formally nominated Republican candidate traveled to Louisiana after a traditional post-convention rally in Florida, shelving plans for a second rally in Virginia and meeting instead with storm victims in a move that his campaign hoped would reinforce a convention message to the country that he’s more than a dollars-and cents-businessman.
Romney toured Jean Lafitte, La., where emergency responders have been helping people hit hard by floodwaters from Hurricane Isaac. He met Gov. Bobby Jindal and local officials, asked questions and discussed evacuation procedures. “Did the water come from the sky, or the rivers, or the ocean?” Romney wondered. Reporters couldn’t hear the answer.
The Romney entourage, accompanied by National Guard vehicles, moved slowly down Jean Lafitte Boulevard – through water that was occasionally more than a foot deep – passing submerged homes, front lawns, playgrounds and gas stations, as residents stood in the water watching the caravan go through.
“I lost everything,” Jodie Chiarello said she’d told Romney. The 42-year-old bakery worker at a local grocery store said Romney told her how to get assistance.
“He said that he was going to do the best that he could for us,” said Chiarello, a Republican from Jean Lafitte who wouldn’t reveal whom she’d vote for.
She said she appreciated the visit by Jindal and Romney. “He’s good. He’ll do the best for us. He has our best interests at heart. I thought he’d be more like a politician, but it was more understanding and caring,” she said.
As Romney visited Louisiana, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would cancel a campaign rally in Ohio and visit Louisiana himself Monday. The White House said the trip was in the works before Romney decided to go.
Top congressional Democrats reacted to Romney’s trip with fury.
“It is the height of hypocrisy for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to make a pretense of showing sympathy for the victims of Hurricane Isaac when their policies would leave those affected by this disaster stranded and on their own,” Sen. Harry Reid , D-Nev., said in a statement.
“If Paul Ryan and his fellow House Republicans had succeeded in blocking disaster relief last fall, there would have been no aid for the victims of Isaac today. And Paul Ryan’s budget would gut disaster funding, making it much harder to get aid to our fellow Americans in their time of need,” the Democratic leader in the Senate said.
Republicans countered that they didn’t oppose disaster aid. They said they wanted to offset what it cost by cutting some other spending.
“Paul Ryan believes providing aid to victims of natural disasters is a critical obligation and should be treated as a high priority within a fiscally responsible budget,” Ryan campaign spokesman Brendan Buck said. “It’s sad that some see these heartbreaking events as opportunities to distort his record and play politics.”
Romney and Ryan started their day with a lively rally in Lakeland, Fla., a swing area in a swing state.
“President Obama made a whole bunch of promises when he ran for president. And now we see a laundry list of broken promises,” Ryan said to cheers.
Romney stood with his wife, Ann, against a hazy blue sky dotted with puffy clouds, his plane behind him with “Believe in America” stripped across its body. He took on Obama before the crowd of about 400 at the Lakeland airport, ticking off a list of promises the president had made four years ago.
“Almost every measure he described, he has failed to perform upon. And the reason for that is not that he was not trying; in my view, it was he was pulling in the wrong direction,” Romney charged. “He did not know what it takes to actually make the economy work. Paul Ryan and I understand how the economy works.”
Romney found enthusiastic backers, some of whom had been reluctant supporters but now declared themselves hooked.
Carlene Davis, 54, a Lakeland stock clerk, had liked former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who battled Romney during the primary season. Santorum appealed to devout Christians such as Davis, who said Friday that what bothered her most about Romney was “probably that he was a Mormon.”
But Davis, who was wearing a red, white and blue cross on her lapel, said she’d since watched a TV special about Mormonism, and found “Romney and his family are Christians. I just didn’t know that.”
Top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens was upbeat Friday about the convention, but he refused to predict how much, if any, bounce in support Romney might get. Since 1964, almost every major presidential candidate has gotten a bounce in the Gallup Poll after his convention, with the average gain 6 percentage points.
Obama ceded nothing to Romney, taking the unusual step of campaigning during the Republican convention week. Friday, he went to Fort Bliss, Texas, to talk about the American troop withdrawal from Iraq during his administration.
“Thursday was Mitt Romney’s big night to tell America his plans for moving forward, yet he chose not to,” a campaign video at the event said.
Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod also jumped in, telling reporters that Romney’s speech Thursday at the convention was full of “snarky lines about the president, some gauzy reminiscences of the past and buzzwords to the base.’’
Like the Romney forces, Axelrod said Obama relished a chance to show a contrast. The president is “eager to talk about where we’ve been and where we’re going. We’ve made a difference,” particularly for auto workers, returning Iraq veterans and people with health coverage, Axelrod said.
Lesley Clark contributed to this story.