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Gritty White House race back on in Sandy aftermath

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama planned to tour Superstorm Sandy's debris field Wednesday and Mitt Romney plotted a return to campaigning as the White House race stirred to life days ahead of the vote.

During an unprecedented 24-hour truce so close to a U.S. presidential vote, the campaigns assessed the storm's aftermath and how to best use the final week left in a race either man could still win.

The storm — which killed at least 43 people in the United States and Canada, battered the East Coast and flooded lower Manhattan — muffled campaign rhetoric and blurred political battle lines, for at least a day or so.

Obama was in presidential mode Tuesday, firing off orders to government emergency chiefs, telling storm victims that America found their plight “heartbreaking” and affecting not to notice the looming Nov. 6 poll.

But his trip to New Jersey Wednesday and meeting with Governor Chris Christie — a Republican Romney backer who has poured praise on the president's handling of the disaster — will take place in a highly political context.

Romney meanwhile concluded that in such a tight race, he could not afford another day watching Obama dominate the headlines, announcing plans for a three-event tour of tightening battleground Florida — which he must win.

Obama will still control the media narrative on Wednesday as he picks through wreckage and consoles storm victims alongside a popular Republican, as Romney plays the grubbier game of campaign politics in sunny Florida.

The no-nonsense Christie — a frequent Obama critic — has assumed a talismanic role similar to that of New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

In one aside on Tuesday, which likely pleased the Obama camp, Christie snapped at a Fox News interviewer when asked if Romney would get a disaster photo-op.

“If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don't know me,” said Christie, often mentioned as a future White House hopeful.

Though the principals were off stage and the political heat was turned down, the campaigns have continued to trade punches, with each side accusing the other of desperation as they seek to lock in key states on the electoral map.

Obama took full advantage of the tools of the presidency as he projected a sense of authority and organization, marshaling the federal government emergency effort and empathizing with millions in the storm's path.

“Do not figure out why we can't do something. I want you to figure out how we do something,” Obama said he told federal workers, after a visit to the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington.

“I want you to cut through red tape, I want you to cut through bureaucracy, there is no excuse for inaction at this point.”

Obama's response to the devastating storm, which roared ashore on Monday, could help his approval ratings, but both sides believe there are few undecided voters left, so it was unclear whether it would actually shift votes.

While the U.S. media establishment is based on the East Coast and fixated on the storm, key battleground states like Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and even the east coast state of Virginia largely escaped Sandy's wrath.

With only five days of campaigning left before he asks voters for a second term, Obama will be expected to turn his focus back to politics on Thursday, though no announcements have yet been made by his campaign.

Romney leads by a few points in some national polls of the popular vote, but Obama is clinging to a slim advantage in the state-by-state race to 270 electoral votes needed to secure the White House.

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 Regions hit by Sandy struggle to resume daily life 
President Obama receives applause from workers during his visit to the Disaster Operation Center of the Red Cross National Headquarters to discuss Superstorm Sandy in Washington, Tuesday. (AP/AFP)

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