TAMPA — Mitt Romney dialed back criticism of President Barack Obama and urged supporters to send "an extra dollar or two" toward super storm relief efforts during a three-city swing through Florida on Wednesday.
With six days to go before the election, Romney was forced to make an inelegant but inevitable transition between showing respect for victims of Hurricane Sandy, which has killed at least 72 people in the United States and Canada, and reaching out to voters in a battleground state.
"We love all of our fellow citizens," Romney told the crowd of about 2,000 people at Landmark Aviation at Tampa International Airport. "We come together in times like this, and we want to make sure that they have a speedy and quick recovery from their financial and in many cases personal loss.
"Now people coming together is what's also going to happen, I believe, on Nov. 7," he said, referring to the day after the election.
As he spoke, two video screens instructed voters how to text their donations to the American Red Cross. Romney canceled campaign appearances Tuesday but did hold a quasi-campaign/relief event in Ohio before flying to Tampa.
He was joined in Florida by two of the Republican Party's biggest stars, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, who also encouraged the crowd to show support for those affected by the storm. Rep. Connie Mack IV, who is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson's re-election, was also on stage.
"We've been the beneficiary of those donations in the past," Rubio said. "Let's make sure we pay it forward for our neighbors and fellow Americans."
Romney, dressed in a white buttoned-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a striped tie, stuck to his stump speech and relied on light anecdotes and statistics about unemployed Americans, jobless college graduates and the increased number of food stamp recipients.
He assured crowds in Tampa and South Florida that he can deliver bipartisan solutions. He ended Wednesday evening in Jacksonville.
"We can't change course in America if we keep attacking each other," Romney said in Coral Gables. "We've got to come together."
The softer tone may soon reverse. Romney campaign advisers said in a conference call the candidate will resume "contrasting" his policies to Obama during stops in Virginia today.
With more than 2.7 million ballots already cast, neither campaign is conceding Florida, where Romney holds a slim 1 percent advantage, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls.
While Romney was wrapping up in Tampa, Vice President Joe Biden was addressing a crowd of about 1,300 in Sarasota.
Obama, meanwhile, will return to Fort Lauderdale on Sunday, the campaign announced.
On Wednesday the president continued to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy and toured parts of New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Bush, who governed Florida through eight hurricanes that affected the state within two years, said the federal government's role in disaster relief comes second to local and state efforts.
"My experience in this emergency response business is that it's the local level and the state level that really matters, and if you do your job right the federal government part works out pretty good," Bush said.
Isabella Ferber, 10, waited in line for the Tampa rally with her parents from Bradenton to see Romney. She begged them to take her to the rally, she said, and decorated a sparkly poster that said "I skipped school to see the next president of the USA!"
The day being Halloween, a half-dozen protesters from the Florida Consumer Action Network positioned themselves near the entrance to the rally dressed in costume, including a werewolf and Batman. Alyssa Depiro, a 19-year-old University of South Florida student, wore a knee-length, polka-dotted skirt as part of her "1950s housewife" costume.
"That is what Romney's policies seem like," she said. "They're trying to set women back."
Katie Fortuna, a 35-year-old mother of two from Tampa, said she switched from an independent voter to a Republican over the economic downturn's persistent effects.
"Things haven't been going too well and aren't getting any better," said Fortuna, who has not found work since she was laid off from her human resources job three years ago.
Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Contact Katie Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org.