As the neck-and-neck presidential race nears conclusion, Republican challenger Mitt Romney started his final campaign push promising bipartisanship to a crowd of GOP enthusiasts in a Tampa aircraft hangar.
Making his second appearance in the Tampa area in five days, Romney was joined by Republican Senate candidate Rep. Connie Mack IV and the two superstars of Florida GOP politics -- former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.
Romney told the crowd that Bush, who was making a rare appearance on the campaign trail, was the source of his ideas for education proposals and called him "the education governor."
The appearance started a one-day, three-stop tour of Florida that continued on to Coral Gables and Jacksonville.
While Romney was speaking in Tampa, Vice President Joe Biden was making an appearance in Sarasota, then heading to Ocala -- both Republican-leaning areas where Biden hoped to cut into Romney's lead.
First Lady Michelle Obama, meanwhile, is scheduled to hold campaign events in Jacksonville, Daytona Beach and Miami today, and both campaigns are sure to send their candidates or top surrogates to Florida over the weekend.
As Romney made his appearance, a new Quinnipiac University poll again showed the race in Florida too close to call, Obama with 48 percent and Romney with 47 percent.
Other polls this week have shown Romney with similarly narrow leads -- one point in CNN and Public Policy Polling surveys released Monday and three points in a Gravis Marketing survey.
The new Quinnipiac poll also showed Obama hanging onto narrow leads in two other crucial swing states. In Ohio, Obama led with 50 percent to Romney's 45 percent, and in Virginia, he led 49-47 percent.
The Tampa crowd saw Romney return to full-strength campaign mode after cancelling some events and toning down his political commentary for two days because of Hurricane Sandy. But he also sought to balance it with emphasis on help for hurricane victims.
In introducing Romney, Bush recalled Florida's experience with hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, noting that Floridians got help from out of state.
"I hope you all will do what you can to help your fellow man in New Jersey, New York and all these places that were so helpful to us six years ago," Bush said.
Romney also urged the crowd to donate to the American Red Cross.
He didn't take reporters' questions in Tampa. In other appearances during the past couple of days, Romney has avoided answering questions about his previous statements that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be abolished and disaster relief delegated to the states or private business.
Romney's campaign released a statement Wednesday in which Romney said he believes FEMA "plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters," and that as president he would "ensure FEMA has the funding it needs."
He also said he would send "maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters."
The Romney campaign also announced it will on Friday begin what it calls its "Romney-Ryan Real Recovery Road Rally" to close the race.
Romney, running mate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, and their wives will start the four-day, nationwide tour with a rally in Ohio joined by nearly 100 governors, senators, mayors and others. The group will fan out for stops in 11 swing states, including Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Romney said "the whole world is watching" Rubio, and he called Bush "a hero."
Conspicuously absent was the current Republican governor, Rick Scott, who has stayed off this year's campaign trail. The Quinnipiac poll indicated that Scott's job approval ratings, although they continue to inch upward, still aren't favorable -- 39 percent approval to 45 percent disapproval.
Romney's speech Wednesday in Tampa was similar to one he made Saturday night in a high school football stadium in Land O' Lakes.
Citing statistics on the nation's economic woes, he said, "We need to take a different course. I will bring real change.
"I don't just talk about change, I actually have a plan to execute change," he added.
Romney heavily emphasized bipartisanship, saying that in times of national emergencies, "people come together."
"People coming together is also what I believe is going to happen on Nov. 7," he said.
He said he plans to do "something Washington talks about but hasn't done much of in a long, long time, and that is truly reaching across the aisle. ... It has to happen -- in Washington, we've got to come together."
Top Romney campaign officials said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday they're confident.
"We have an incumbent president that is stuck well below the 50 percent threshold" in job approval, said campaign senior adviser Russ Schriefer. "That is not a very happy place to be if you're an incumbent a week out.
"Voters are looking for change. ... Gov. Romney is the change candidate."
Romney pollster Neil Newhouse added, "There's no question we have an intensity advantage. ... Intensity drives turnout."
Romney backers at the rally were also optimistic.
"I know he's going to win," said South Tampa campaign volunteer Jennifer Hatchett. "I've been working the phones, and I haven't heard this level of enthusiasm in years."
Selena Ward of South Tampa, one of the few black people at the rally, said she voted for Obama in 2008, but "I'm not happy. There haven't been many changes."
Black voters "should listen and give him a chance," said Ward, a military spouse and homemaker with three young children.
"A lot of what he says is on our side -- a lot of black people have small businesses."
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