TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney is making the first stop of his fall campaign for the White House a visit to hurricane-damaged Louisiana, hoping to convince Americans he is not just the right man to fix the economy but an all-around leader for the nation. President Barack Obama, for his part, served notice that he will use his powers of incumbency to make Romney's mission hard.
Fresh from the Republican National Convention, Romney scheduled a visit to Lafitte, outside New Orleans, where he was joining Gov. Bobby Jindal on a scheduled tour of storm damage.
At a farewell rally as he left Tampa, Romney made no mention of the storm and kept his focus squarely on the economy. The GOP nominee said he and running mate Paul Ryan "understand how the economy works, we understand how Washington works. We will reach across the aisle and find good people who like us, want to make sure this country deals with its challenges. We'll get America on track again."
Ryan, warming up the crowd for Romney, told supporters: "Coming out of Tampa, we have given our fellow countrymen a very clear choice." He offered Romney as "a man for the moment" and cast the election as a choice between a failed presidency and a stagnant economy, and fresh leadership that will turn the economy around. Ryan also asked for prayers for those affected the hurricane and by an earthquake in the Philippines.
From there, Romney plunged into the fall whirlwind — first stop Louisiana — on a new campaign plane painted with the slogan "Believe in America." Ryan split off for the battleground state of Virginia.
Hurricane Isaac, later downgraded to a tropical storm, left a wake of misery in Louisiana, with dozens of neighborhoods under deep flood waters and more than 800,000 people without power. While New Orleans was spared major damage, the storm walloped surrounding suburbs, topping smaller levees with days of rain and forcing more than 4,000 from their homes.
Romney heads into the campaign's final 67 days with his primary focus on jobs and the economy, and depicting Obama as a well-meaning but inept man who must be replaced.
"America has been patient," Romney said in his speech to the nation Thursday night. "Americans have supported this president in good faith. But today, the time has come to turn the page."
His wife made the rounds of Friday morning talk shows to offer her husband as the solution to the country's economic problems, and predicted that argument would hold sway with women who haven't voted Republican in the past.
Ann Romney said women tell her: "It's time for the grown-up to come, the man that's going to take this very seriously and the future of our children very, very seriously. I very much believe this is going to be an economic election, and I think a lot of women may be voting this cycle around in a different way than they usually are, and that is thinking about the economy."
Obama, who will hold his own convention next week, headed for a Texas military base exactly two years after declaring the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, the war that haunts the last Republican president. This, as Democrats prepare to gather in Charlotte, N.C., for Obama's convention.
Where Romney gave a shout-out to members of the military during his rally, Obama was able to flex the powers of the presidency. He signed an executive order to improve access to mental health services for veterans, service members and military families.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama's visit Friday to Fort Bliss would highlight administration efforts to support U.S. service members and their families, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those efforts include attempts to combat what Carney called "unseen wounds" of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Obama's campaign issued a morning-after critique of Romney's speech that faulted the GOP nominee for skipping over failings in his record on job-creation as Massachusetts governor and for not being up-front with voters about details of his economic plans that Obama says would reduce taxes for the wealthy and increase burdens on the middle class.
"Thursday was Mitt Romney's big night to tell America his plans for moving forward, yet he chose not to," the Obama campaign's web video says.
Romney capped a high-energy night closing to the convention with a spirited and unusually personal speech infused with his family life, touching on his Mormon faith and recounting his youth. The cheers were loud and frequent, surely music to the ears of a candidate who struggled throughout the bruising primary season and beyond to bury doubts among many in his party that he was the authentic conservative in the field.
"Now is the time to restore the promise of America," Romney declared to a nation struggling with unemployment and the slowest economic recovery in decades.
Polls suggest a to-the-wire campaign finish. The two men will spend the next 10 weeks in a handful of competitive states, none more important than Florida and Ohio, and meet in October for one-on-one debates where the stakes could hardly be any higher.
The campaign themes are mostly set. Romney depicts the president as a once-inspiring but disappointing figure who doesn't understand job-creation or ordinary Americans' frustrations. Democrats portray Romney as a man shifting ever rightward in the absence of core convictions, and a wealthy plutocrat who can't relate to the middle class.
Hanging over the campaign is a big number: the nation's 8.3 percent unemployment rate. It is Obama's biggest impediment to a second term. Republicans seem to be banking on the notion that it will bring Obama down if Romney simply presents himself as a competent alternative.
Strikingly absent from Romney's campaign, including the three-day convention in Tampa, were detailed explanations of how he would tame deficit spending while also cutting taxes and expanding the armed forces. He seems to be asking voters to trust his ability to create jobs and to make tough, unpopular decisions later.8 comments on this story
Democrats hope their convention in Charlotte will, at a minimum, neutralize any GOP bounce out of Tampa. In the lead-up to his convention, Obama planned to campaign this weekend in Ohio, Colorado and Iowa.
Romney scrapped a planned trip to Virginia on Friday to go to Louisiana. He will campaign in Ohio on Saturday before taking a couple of days to rest while Democrats start their quadrennial show.
Obama narrowly won North Carolina in 2008 and scheduled his 2012 convention there in hopes of repeating the unexpected feat. Romney's path to victory is severely complicated unless he puts the state back in the GOP column.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt, Steve Peoples, Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy, Thomas Beaumont and Julie Mazziotta in Tampa, Fla., and Jennifer Agiesta and Cal Woodward in Washington contributed to this report.