By NEDRA PICKLER AND CHARLES BABINGTON, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama put campaign battleground travel on hold to tour the ravaged New Jersey coast Wednesday, while down-to-the-wire campaigning resumed in swing state Florida that is critical to Republican Mitt Romney's victory plan.
Obama is emphasizing his incumbent's role for a third straight day, skipping voter contact in the handful of states that will decide the election to visit victims of Hurricane Sandy around Atlantic City in a state he's confident of winning. Obama planned to resume campaign travel Thursday with gusto, making stops in Nevada, Colorado and Wisconsin.
The president's actions have forced Romney to walk a careful line and make tough choices. The former Massachusetts governor must show respect for the superstorm's casualties all along the Eastern Seaboard. But Romney can ill afford to waste a minute of campaign time, with the contest virtually deadlocked in several key states and the election six days away.
Florida is among the most closely fought and the biggest prize among the swing states, with 29 electoral votes. Without victory in Florida, Romney will have an uphill and limited path to electoral victory.
Romney has stops scheduled with former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio in some of the most populous areas of the state – Tampa, Jacksonville and Coral Gables in the Miami area. The Obama campaign dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to play defense in Florida on Wednesday, with stops in the smaller, more conservative markets of Sarasota and Ocala aimed at narrowing the margin where Republicans usually fare well.
GOP running mate Paul Ryan was campaigning across his home state of Wisconsin before planning to take his children trick or treating. Wisconsin is part of the Romney-Ryan campaign's eleventh-hour strategy of trying to put Democratic-leaning states in play and forcing Obama to shift resources to areas he has expected to win.
After tamping down his partisan tone Tuesday at an Ohio event that chiefly emphasized victims' relief, Romney planned a full-blown return to the trail Wednesday. Sandy largely spared Florida, so Romney calculates he can campaign there without appearing callous.
On Thursday, Romney planned to focus on Virginia with stops in Roanoke, Doswell and Virginia Beach. Friday is all about Ohio, culminating with a guest-filled rally in suburban Cincinnati to kick off the campaign's final four days. Set to join Romney, Ryan and their wives in West Chester, Ohio, are golf legend Jack Nicklaus, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Romney also planned to get in last-minute voter outreach in tossup New Hampshire, with a big final campaign event Monday night before heading to Boston for Election Day.
Obama's revised schedule also is a political gamble. Rather than use the campaign's final Wednesday to woo voters in tossup states, he will go before cameras with New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie. Christie is one of Romney's most prominent supporters, and a frequent Obama critic. But Christie praised Obama's handling of the storm, a political twist the president's visit is sure to underscore.
Obama also took full advantage of incumbency Tuesday. He visited Red Cross headquarters near the White House to commiserate with victims and encourage aid workers. "This is a tough time for millions of people," the president said. "But America is tougher."
While Obama and Romney moved cautiously Tuesday, their campaigns exchanged sharp words in Ohio and expanded their operations into three Democratic-leaning states, a move that will reshape the contest's final six days.
Romney's campaign is running ads in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, and a pro-Romney group is doing the same in Michigan. Obama was leading in all three, but his campaign is taking the threat seriously. It sent former President Bill Clinton to Minnesota on Tuesday and is buying airtime in all three states, although senior Obama adviser David Axelrod flatly said they are safe.
"I will shave off my mustache of 40 years if we lose any of those three states," Axelrod said in an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
Republican strategists differ on the Romney campaign's thinking. Some think Romney's aides fear losing all-important Ohio, and they hope for a stunning last-minute breakthrough elsewhere to compensate. Others say the GOP camp has so much money – and so few chances to buy useful airtime in saturated states – that it can spend millions of dollars on a long-shot without scrimping in a battleground.
"If they didn't have so much money, they wouldn't be able to do something with so little chance of success," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine.
Democratic groups bitterly complained about a TV ad the Romney camp is running in the Toledo and Youngstown areas of Ohio. The ad suggests that Jeep will move its Toledo car-making facility to China, a claim Jeep executives deny.
Democrats called the ad a brazen lie and a sign of desperation. Even some Republicans worried that Romney has gone too far in a state where voters follow the auto industry closely.
The carmakers also objected to the ads, but Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul on Wednesday said the manufacturers don't refute any facts in the ad.
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.