KETTERING, Ohio - Aiming to transform an Ohio rally into a "Storm Relief Event," Republican nominee Mitt Romney rolled up his sleeves to sort and box supplies donated by his supporters to send to storm victims in New Jersey.
"We have heavy hearts as you know with all of the suffering going on in a major part of the country," Romney said in brief remarks to more than 1,000 people in a high school sports arena. He told them he had spoken to some of the governors in the states that had been hardest hit.
"They talked about a lot of the people having hard times," he said. "And I appreciate the fact that people right here in Dayton got up this morning, some went to the grocery store I see, and purchased some things these families will need, and I appreciate your generosity."
Romney, who canceled four scheduled rallies due to the eastern storm, was walking a fine line holding an event so soon after a major disaster. The campaign removed all campaign-themed signage from the event, instead hanging one large American flag from the ceiling and posting information on donating to the Red Cross on two large TV screens hanging in the arena. Romney stood in front of several tables lined with food, bottled water and other necessities like toilet paper, flash lights, batteries, and blankets.
But the event still had some of the trappings of a rally, including rounds of chanting for the candidate by those in attendance and a few campaign-related t-shirts (including "Obama: You're Fired!" and "Don't tread on me!"). In addition, the organizers played a video biography of Romney that is a staple of his campaign events. Top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens, asked by NPR if the video blurred the line between storm relief and politics, said "I agree" that it did and added: "I don't know how it happened."
Romney used the occasion to encourage Americans to look out for their neighbors, pointing out that even small gestures can have an impact. "We won't be able to solve all the problems with our effort this morning. There are a lot of people that will still be looking for goods even though we've gathered these things, as you know," he said. "But I know that, one of the things I've learned in life is that you make the difference you can. And you can't always solve all the problems yourself, but you can make the difference in the life of one or two people as the result of one or two people taking an effort."
As he boxed up some of the supplies, Romney ignored questions from reporters about whether he would eliminate the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) if he is elected president. During a CNN primary debate last year, Romney said he was in favor of putting states in charge of emergency response to storms and other disasters, and reducing FEMA's role. His staff has said recently he would not eliminate the agency.