FORT MYERS — News of the mass shooting in Colorado confronted President Barack Obama at 5:26 a.m. Friday while he was still at the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach, triggering a somber pivot from campaigner to voice for a shaken nation.
"I know many of you came here today for a campaign event," Obama said later to 2,000 supporters who showed up at a convention center in Fort Myers, some camping out overnight, for what was supposed to be a boisterous rally in this Republican-heavy corner of Florida. "But this morning, we woke up to news of a tragedy that reminds us of all the ways that we are united as one American family."
Addressing a national TV audience, Obama spoke for seven minutes, calling for a day of prayer and reflection and saying the actions of the gunman may never be understood.
"Such violence, such evil is senseless."
"But while we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living," he continued. "The people we lost in Aurora loved and they were loved. They were mothers and fathers; they were husbands and wives; sisters and brothers; sons and daughters, friends and neighbors. They had hopes for the future and they had dreams that were not yet fulfilled. And if there's anything to take away from this tragedy it's the reminder that life is very fragile."
Obama canceled a planned rally later Friday in Winter Park that would have closed a two-day swing through Florida.
"There are going to be other days for politics," Obama said before calling for a moment of silence.
He said he had spoken to Steve Hogan, mayor of Aurora, Colo., where the mass shooting happened at a movie theater, and expressed his feelings as a father.
"My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theater, as so many of our kids do every day? Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I'm sure you will do the same with your children. But for those parents who may not be so lucky, we have to embrace them and let them know we will be there for them as a nation."
Obama left the stage, boarded Air Force One and returned to Washington, where he ordered American flags be flown at half-staff until sunset Wednesday. (Similarly, President George W. Bush ordered flags lower after the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007.)
Mitt Romney, Obama's Republican rival for the presidency, also scrapped a planned campaign event in New Hampshire and addressed the tragedy instead.
"Our hearts break with the sadness of this unspeakable tragedy," Romney said. "Ann and I join the president and first lady and all Americans in offering our deepest condolences to those whose lives were shattered in a few moments of evil."
Romney's campaign said it was taking down ads in Colorado until further notice. Obama's said it would do the same. Both sides pulled back on the accusatory email news releases and videos that have defined the intensifying campaign.
By morning, the crowd in Fort Myers wrapped around the building and shouts of "four more years" rang out. A smaller crowd of Republican protesters shouted back, "four more months," and charged Obama with the failed economy.
But the energy faded inside. A band that was supposed to play sat silent and loud cheers that greeted Obama were quickly tamped down.
"We all would have liked him to say something more, but he is the president of the country and for all the people and this is part of the job. It's appropriate," said Leonard Lowell, 72, of Naples.
"It's the right thing to do. We should all mourn in a situation like this," said Donna Johnston of Naples. Of the shootings she said, "What is wrong with this culture that this goes on? There's so much desperation in this country and for some reason people feel this is the type of thing they have to do to get noticed? Why aren't we noticing him when there are problems to begin with?"
Judith Strickler, 69, said she has a daughter who lives near Aurora. "It scared me to death. I'm glad my grandsons were not at that theater. What Obama did is the right thing. It's saying let's take care of Aurora; it's not the time to do politics."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.