Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his wife Ann, center, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., right, talk with Sen. David Vitter, R-La., back to camera, during a tour of flooding caused by hurricane Isaac, Friday, Aug. 31, 2012, in Jean Lafitte, La. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
JEAN LAFITTE, La. (AP) — 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, surveyed storm damage in Louisiana and declared "people down here need help."
President Barack Obama made plans for his own visit to the Gulf on Monday. And the president served notice that he will use his powers of incumbency to make Romney's mission hard: He underscored his record as commander in chief by paying a visit to troops at Fort Bliss in Texas, exactly two years after declaring the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
"Today every American can be proud that the United States is safer, the United States is stronger and the United States is more respected in the world," Obama declared, a throng of soldiers in fatigues providing the backdrop.
Fresh from the Republican National Convention, Romney met up with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on a highway south of New Orleans. The GOP nominee's motorcade of SUVs and trucks inched through water that was a foot or more deep at times, passing flooded homes and submerged gas stations as residents stood in water where there should have been lawns. The two talked about some of the challenges facing the surrounding community, and visited with local residents and National Guard troops providing assistance.
"I'm here to learn and obviously draw some attention to what's going on here," said Romney, in shirt-sleeves and blue jeans. "So that people around the country know that people down here need help."
At a farewell rally as he left Tampa, Romney 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 hopscotched from one electoral battleground to another — Florida to Virginia — declaring "67 days to go!" He told supporters in Richmond that after four years of economic troubles, it was time for change.
"If we stay on the same path, we'll get more of the same result," Ryan said.
Isaac 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.
Asked what a private citizen can accomplish by visiting the Gulf, Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said the GOP nominee had talked with Gulf officials about focusing public attention on the region, "particularly the need for charitable donations and resources to aid relief efforts."
"The governor is in a position to help focus that public attention," Madden said.
Jindal, a Republican who canceled his speech at the GOP convention to tend to hurricane-related matters, said he'd invited Romney to come visit, and he's thrilled that Obama will come through, too.
"We're solely focused on the hurricane and the response," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement it was "the height of hypocrisy for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to make a pretense of showing sympathy for the victims of Hurricane Isaac when their policies would leave those affected by this disaster stranded and on their own." He said the federal budget proposed by Ryan, and blocked by others in Congress, would have severely cut disaster funding.
Romney heads into the campaign's final 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."
Among those who chose not to turn in: Obama. "He tends to consume his news the old-fashioned way, via print," said spokesman Jay Carney.
His wife, Michelle, said in an email appeal that she's "learned to shrug off what Barack's opponents say about him." But she told supporters "not everyone knows him as you and I do," and urged them to contribute money to help get the Democratic message out.
Ann Romney, for her part, 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.
Deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, in a conference call with reporters, said Democrats will have a "working convention," focused on registering new voters, organizing neighborhoods and connecting more people to the campaign.
She dismissed the GOP gathering as a collection of attacks on the president lacking "any substantive reason why Mitt Romney should be president."
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.
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.
Daly reported from Fort Bliss in Texas. Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Steve Peoples, Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy, Thomas Beaumont and Julie Mazziotta in Tampa, Fla., and Jennifer Agiesta and Calvin Woodward in Washington contributed to this report.