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Obama, Romney visits to Gulf highlight differences

Floodwaters from Hurricane Isaac inundate structures in Scaresdale , La., Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. More than 200,000 people across Louisiana still didn't have any power five days after Hurricane Isaac ravaged the state. Thousands of evacuees remained at she
Floodwaters from Hurricane Isaac inundate structures in Scaresdale , La., Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. More than 200,000 people across Louisiana still didn't have any power five days after Hurricane Isaac ravaged the state. Thousands of evacuees remained at shelters or bunked with friends or relatives.
Gerald Herbert, Associated Press

TOLEDO, Ohio — President Barack Obama's trip to the hurricane zone three days after rival Mitt Romney looked over flooded homes and businesses underscores the differences in the way the presidential candidates see the role of government.

So far, the president's remarks about the storm have focused on what money and resources the federal government can marshal to help. Romney, the Republican challenger, used his trip Friday to emphasize the need for charitable donations to help people recover.

Obama was visiting Louisiana late Monday to hear about the damage from local officials, view the recovery efforts and make a statement likely to highlight the government's role in the crisis. Obama was slated to walk through hard-hit St. John the Baptist Parish, 30 miles outside of New Orleans. It's a small, heavily Catholic area of about 45,000 residents. The largest city is LaPlace, where several neighborhoods were inundated by water and some residents were rescued from rooftops by boats.

Aside from drawing a distinction with Romney on the role of government, Obama also will signal the advantages he has over his opponent as a sitting president. The White House publicized how much Obama has done to oversee the storm response — he called governors and mayors, received briefings by weather and security advisers, and declared states of emergency before the storm hit.

Since the storm hit last week, Democrats have been using the disaster issue to hammer Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, whose budget had proposed eliminating $10 billion a year in disaster spending and requiring Congress to pay for emergencies by cutting from elsewhere in the budget. GOP leaders blocked that proposal, and Romney hasn't said whether he agreed with Ryan's proposed cuts.

Both Romney's team and the president's insist that their visits are not aimed at political gain. But the specter of Hurricane Katrina helps explain why both men sought to tour Isaac's damage. Presidents, and would-be presidents, can't afford to get panned the way President George W. Bush did in the days after Katrina crippled New Orleans and the Mississippi and Alabama coasts in 2005, killing more than 1,800.

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden last week characterized Romney's visit as intended to focus people on "the needs of the affected region, particularly the need for charitable donations and resources to aid relief efforts."

As Romney's visit to Louisiana was wrapping up on Friday, Obama was in Texas talking to U.S. troops about the disaster, telling them that as president he had "directed the federal government to keep doing everything that it can to help our partners at the state and local level. As a country, we stand united with our fellow Americans in their hour of need."

It was more than Romney said publicly that day about the hurricane, even though he spent more than three hours driving down the flooded Jean Lafitte Boulevard, a main road, his motorcade inching past flooded gas stations, houses and front lawns.

"I'm here to learn and obviously to draw some attention to what's going on here," Romney told Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whom he accompanied to the Jean Lafitte town hall to meet with emergency workers and local officials. "So that people around the country know that people down here need help."

That snippet of conversation represented the bulk of Romney's remarks in Louisiana on Friday.

Throughout his visit, Romney was confronted with reminders that locals were most concerned about extending flood protection — paid for by the federal government — far enough to protect their community. In New Orleans, $14 billion in federal aid was set aside to build a complex flood protection system of sea walls and levees after the devastation of Katrina in 2005.

A day before Romney arrived, Jindal had called on the government and the Army Corps of Engineers to spend more to expand protection for places like Jean Lafitte, which is outside the protection of the levee system.

When Romney met Jodie Chiarello, 42, a woman who lost her home in the flooding, she told him that, too. Romney told her "there's assistance out there," Chiarello said of her conversation. "He said, go home and call 211." That's a public service number offered in many states.

"We live outside the levee protection that's why we get all this water because they close the floodgates up front and all they're doing is flooding us out down here," she said.

Romney did not speak on the subject during his visit. Asked whether Romney would support expanding the levee system, spokeswoman Andrea Saul said: "Gov. Romney recognizes the importance of disaster prevention and would seek to ensure that we have the infrastructure we need to keep all Americans safe."

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Hunt reported from Wolfeboro, N.H. Associated Press writers Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., Ken Thomas in Charlotte, N.C., and Brian Schwaner in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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