Republican Mitt Romney launched the final leg of his quest for the White House by visiting storm-battered Louisiana on Friday, driving through a flooded town and talking with residents and local officials in a trip he said he hoped would "draw some attention" to Hurricane Isaac's victims.
Just hours after accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Romney swooped into Jean Lafitte, La., where the storm brought severe flooding to the area earlier in the week before being downgraded to a tropical storm.
"I'm here to learn and obviously to draw some attention to what's going on here," Romney told Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who he accompanied to the town hall to meet with emergency workers. "So that people around the country know that people down here need help."
Romney's motorcade, including trucks equipped to drive through high water, edged gingerly down Jean Lafitte Boulevard, a main road.
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 the motorcade pass.
Romney and Jindal spent close to an hour meeting with first responders and local officials. Romney shook hands with National Guardsmen outside the U.S. Post Office and talked with a local resident, Jodie Chiarello, 42, who lost her home in Isaac's flooding.
"He just told me to, um, there's assistance out there," Chiarello said of her conversation with Romney. Asked what she thought of the Republican nominee, she said: "He's good. He'll do the best for us, you know. He speaks to our best interests at heart."
Chiarello — like other residents — expressed frustration about the town's lack of flood protection. Jean Lafitte is in a section of Jefferson Parish that is just outside a region that is protected by levees and other flood protection measures built after Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans almost exactly seven years ago. The Army Corps of Engineers spent about $13 billion on the system.
"Where is our levee protection?" read a giant pink sign hanging on the balcony of one flooded house.
Romney's last-minute visit, announced less than 12 hours after he became the Republican nominee, took him to the disaster area ahead of his Democratic rival, President Barack Obama. The president was following with his own visit to Louisiana on Monday, the White House announced.
Romney went at Jindal's invitation, his 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.
"We welcome them both," Jindal said.
Jindal insisted that he would stay focused on the storm's aftermath during both men's visits.
"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.
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.
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."
Senior strategist Stuart Stevens said the timing of Romney's trip shouldn't raise questions.
"I don't think it's inappropriate," Stevens said.
As they began the tour of Jean Lafitte, Romney and Jindal talked about challenges facing the stricken area, which relies on fishing for its livelihood.
As 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?"
At one point, Romney stopped to talk to a man in a straw hat who was waving a neon yellow "Mitt is Our Man" sign on the side of the road.
"Watch out for this guy, all right?" Romney said, standing with his feet in the floodwaters, urging the man's companions to look out for him.
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 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.
Back in Washington, Democrats seized on the trip to accuse 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.
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