TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan plunged headlong into the fall campaign Friday on a two-track mission to convince Americans that the GOP nominee is not only the right man to fix the economy but an all-around leader for the nation. Romney, hoping to project an aura of leadership, flew to Louisiana to survey storm damage as his running mate tended to politics in battleground Virginia.
President Barack Obama planned his own visit to the Gulf for Monday, after a campaign stop that day in Ohio. The president also served notice that he will use his powers of incumbency to make Romney's mission hard. To that end, he underscored his record as commander in chief by visiting troops in Texas exactly two years after declaring the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
Fresh from the Republican National Convention, Romney boarded his new campaign plane — emblazoned with the slogan "Believe in America" — to join Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on his scheduled tour of storm damage in Lafitte, outside New Orleans.
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 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.
Hurricane Isaac, since 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."
Democrats gather in Charlotte, N.C., next week for Obama's convention. They hope the convention will, at a minimum, neutralize any GOP bounce out of Tampa. 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.
In the lead-up to his convention, Obama was campaigning this weekend in Iowa, Colorado and Ohio, before surveying storm damage in Louisiana on Monday.
White House spokesman Jay Carney announced the trip to the Gulf from Air Force One as Obama flew to Texas to speak to U.S. service members and their families. Carney said the president's visit 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 wars, including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Obama's team is intent on flexing the powers of the presidency in pursuit of re-election.
Where Romney gave a shout-out to members of the military during his rally, Obama was able to sign an executive order to improve access to mental health services for veterans, service members and military families.
Vice President Joe Biden spent Friday in the political battleground of Ohio, visiting with UAW workers in Lordstown. He reminded them that Romney opposed the administration's bailout of the auto industry, which didn't come up at the GOP convention.
"What they didn't say is because of the auto rescue, there are 4,500 of you working here today," Biden said. "And GM is adding two shifts."
Romney will be in Ohio on Saturday before taking a couple of days to rest during the Democratic convention.
Obama's campaign issued a morning-after critique of Romney's convention 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 said in a web video.
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.
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.
By CHARLES BABINGTON