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Obama, Republican Christie tour storm-hit New Jersey, trade praise

by
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at the Friedman Prize dinner in Washington, May 4, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks at the Friedman Prize dinner in Washington, May 4, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Mark Felsenthal

ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey (Reuters) - Putting aside partisan differences, President Barack Obama and Republican Governor Chris Christie toured storm-stricken parts of New Jersey on Wednesday, taking in scenes of flooded roads and praising each other for their response to superstorm Sandy.

Riding in the Marine One presidential helicopter, Obama and Christie got an aerial view of some of the hardest-hit areas of the New Jersey shoreline, and afterward the president promised to cut through red tape to help storm victims.

Despite being a top surrogate for Obama's rival Mitt Romney in the November 6 election, Christie kept up his compliments about Obama for guiding federal support during and after the devastating storm, which also crippled New York City and other parts of the eastern seaboard.

"I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and his compassion," said Christie, known for his blunt, in-your-face political style, after the two men completed their tour.

He said the affected areas needed clean drinking water, restored power, and children back in school. "I discussed all of those issues today with the president and I'm pleased to report that he has sprung into action immediately to help get us those things while we were in the car riding together," Christie said.

Obama has suspended campaign events since Sunday while overseeing federal relief efforts and holding public events to show Americans he is focused on handling a major natural disaster instead of pressing his quest for a second term.

He returned the praise from Christie, seen by some Republicans as a potential presidential candidate in 2016.

"Governor Christie, throughout this process, has been responsive, he has been aggressive in making sure that the state got out in front of this incredible storm," Obama said, calling the Republican's leadership "extraordinary."

Obama said restoring electricity was a top priority.

"We are here for you and we will not forget, we will follow up to make sure you get all the help you need until you rebuild," he said.

U-TURN BY CHRISTIE

The storm and the government's relief efforts have prompted a U-turn in the tone of Christie's rhetoric about Obama. The New Jersey governor leveled harsh criticism at Obama during a keynote speech at the Republican convention in August.

But all that has changed with the damage wrought by Sandy, which bashed the mid-Atlantic coast on Monday and Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Christie said Obama's response to the storm damage in New Jersey was "outstanding."

With an extremely close election looming on Tuesday, Obama has remained in the public spotlight, while Romney has had to suspend campaign appearances to avoid coming across as overly political while millions of people were affected by the storm.

Romney was back campaigning on Wednesday, but his campaign seemed at a loss about how to deal with Christie's praise of Obama.

Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden, asked by reporters whether he agreed with Christie that Obama was doing a good job handling the hurricane response, said: "I believe the response is still going on so I'm not in a position to qualify the response by the federal government. I believe it's still ongoing."

Obama is set to resume campaigning on Thursday with visits to Nevada and Colorado, followed by stops on Friday in Ohio - considered the most critical election swing state.

From the air in and around the gambling resort of Atlantic City, Obama saw whole streets underwater, beachfront homes swamped by flooding and piers partially blown away.

He also saw the still-burning remnants of about eight homes set afire during the 1,000-mile (1,600-km) -wide storm, the biggest to hit the U.S. mainland in generations.

"If your homes aren't too badly damaged we can hopefully get you back in," Obama told residents at an evacuation shelter in the town of Brigantine. "The entire country's been watching. Everyone knows how hard Jersey has been hit."

(additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Margaret Chadbourn, and Jeff Mason; Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh)

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