JEAN LAFITTE, La. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney detoured to hurricane-damaged Louisiana on Friday as he campaigned his way out of the Republican National Convention on the final leg of his quest for the White House, touring a flooded community and saying he hoped his visit would focus public attention on victims’ needs.
The former Massachusetts governor’s inaugural flight on his logo-plastered campaign plane touched down Friday afternoon to visit an emergency command center in Jean Lafitte, La., where emergency crews were helping victims of Hurricane Isaac. The storm brought severe flooding to the area earlier in the week before it was downgraded to a tropical storm.
Romney met along a highway with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and they talked about some of the challenges facing the stricken area, which relies on fishing for its livelihood.
“I’m here to learn and obviously to draw some attention to what’s going on here,” Romney told the governor. “So that people around the country know that people down here need help.”
Jindal talked about the contributions of the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other organizations. Romney inquired how many people had been evacuated and asked, “Did the water come from the sky, or the rivers, or the ocean?”
Reporters could not hear the entire conversation.
Romney’s motorcade, consisting of trucks equipped to drive through high water, moved slowly down Jean Lafitte Bouldevard. Accompanied by National Guard vehicles, the caravan inched through water that at some points was a foot or more deep, submerging gas stations, flooding homes and covering front laws. Residents stood in the water and watched Romney’s motorcade pass.
At one point, Romney and Jindal stopped and talked to a man in waders, a straw hat and holding a neon yellow “Mitt Is Our Man” handwritten sign. There was no immediate word on what was said.
President Barack Obama was following with his own visit to Louisiana on Monday, the White House announced.
Hurricane Isaac had threatened the coast of Florida, delaying Romney’s nominating convention by a day. It ended up missing Florida and instead hanging over Mississippi and Louisiana as a Category 1 and then a tropical storm, drenching the Gulf Coast with rain. The storm hit almost exactly 7 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and convention organizers had been acutely aware of the optics of carrying on a celebration while people suffered a few states away.
The storm was blamed for at least six deaths in Louisiana and Mississippi. It submerged hundreds of homes, forced thousands of others to evacuate and cut power to nearly half of Louisiana’s homes and businesses.
Romney’s trip to Louisiana, announced less than 12 hours after he accepted the GOP presidential nomination, came at Jindal’s invitation, the campaign said. Jindal, a Republican, told reporters Romney had been in touch several days ago to ask how he could help with storm relief, and Jindal suggested Romney come down and see the damage for himself.
He said he had extended an invitation to Obama as well.
“The president of the United States is always welcome in our state,” Jindal said. “We’re thrilled that Gov. Romney’s coming today. We’re thrilled that the president’s coming on Monday. We welcome them both.”
Jindal insisted that while both Obama and Romney are locked in a tight race for the White House, he would stay focused on the storm’s aftermath.
“We’re not talking politics. That’s not the right time to do that. We’re solely focused on the hurricane and the response,” he said.
That, however, did not stop Democrats from accusing Republicans of supporting cuts in federal disaster funding that the Gulf Coast will now need to recover from Isaac.
Earlier this year, Rep. Paul Ryan — Romney’s running mate and chairman of the House Budget Committee — proposed eliminating $10 billion a year in disaster spending and requiring Congress to pay for emergencies by cutting from elsewhere in the budget. That proposal was blocked by GOP leaders.
“It is 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,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a written statement.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, asked what a private citizen like Romney could accomplish by visiting a disaster area, said he wasn’t sure how to answer the question.
“I think that it’s always important to draw attention to the fact that individuals and families and business owners are profoundly affected. … That’s an important thing to do,” Carney said.
Asked that same question, Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney’s visit could focus people on “the needs of the affected region, particularly the need for charitable donations and resources to aid relief efforts.”
Still, Romney touched down in the state days before the president — and made it his first trip since becoming the official Republican nominee.
As he left Tampa Friday following his party’s convention, Romney spoke to more than 2,000 supporters in Lakeland, Fla. He urged the crowd to work to find Obama voters who might vote for him.
“I know they’re here,” Romney said standing alongside running mate Paul Ryan. “They’re not as visible as they used to be. You can see some of the glue on the back of their bumper sticker where it used to be, and so you can find them. “
Romney was sandwiching his Louisiana visit in between the Florida stop and a rally in Ohio that’s set for Saturday.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)