WASHINGTON — Here's an image few probably expected to see six days before Election Day: President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — a Republican who is one of Mitt Romney's most vocal supporters — walking together in a show of government unity.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, and never more so than when natural disaster strikes. And so it was that Obama, mired in both disaster relief and the fight for re-election, landed Wednesday in New Jersey for a joint tour of storm damage with Christie, a potential future presidential candidate who delivered the keynote address that tore into Obama during this year's Republican national convention.
Stepping onto the tarmac in Atlantic City, N.J., Obama greeted Christie with a smile and repeated pats on the back. They walked side by side, two leaders confronting trying times, toward the helicopter that took them high above Sandy's destruction. Later, they walked the storm-ravaged streets together, talking with Sandy's victims.
"I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion for our state and the people of our state," Christie said later in Brigantine, N.J., praising what he called "a great working relationship" that started even before the storm hit.
"Gov. Christie throughout this process has been responsive. He's been aggressive in making sure the state got out in front of this incredible storm," Obama added, thanking the Republican for his "extraordinary leadership and partnership."
For political junkies, Wednesday made for interesting optics.
Setting the stage for the president's visit was a round of television interviews Christie gave a day earlier in which he lavished praise on Obama's handling of superstorm Sandy.
"The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit," Christie said in one such interview, noting that Obama had told him to call him personally at the White House should the need arise. "The president has been outstanding in this," he said in another.
Christie was much less effusive when asked whether Romney would be coming to help: "I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested."
This year, it's been hard to find a Republican, much less a celebrity politician, who has worked harder over the past year to elect Romney than Christie. The first-term governor turned down incessant calls to run for president himself before endorsing Romney in October 2011, then becoming one of his top fundraisers and campaign surrogates.
Christie, who is widely expected to run for re-election in Trenton next year, has also been an effective attack dog against Obama. "Stop lying, Mr. President," was his retort when asked in September how he'd respond if he'd been face-to-face with Obama during the first presidential debate.
But nothing brings two foes together like a common enemy — in this case, Mother Nature. The deadly storm, which led Christie to request, and Obama to approve, the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area, neutralized the nastiness of campaign season, if only for a day or two.
"Chris Christie knows his job," former Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., told The Associated Press. "He's not any less for Romney, but he's doing his job for the people of New Jersey."
Barbour is no stranger to the rare political dynamic that takes hold when the nation faces its toughest moments. The former Republican Party chairman was in his second year as Mississippi's governor when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, and in his second term less than five years later when oil started gushing into the ocean near Mississippi's coastline.
"During the BP oil spill, we bent over backwards to keep our disagreements or disappointments with the federal government private, and to give them credit wherever it was due," Barbour said.
Christie and Obama, too, have been here before. It's been little more than a year since their last post-storm pas de deux in Patterson, N.J., where the two embraced on the tarmac as Obama arrived to view the devastation from Hurricane Irene. Then it was Obama who extolled Christie, crediting his efforts with helping to "avert even greater tragedy."
For Romney, who like Obama paused his breakneck campaigning Monday and Tuesday out of deference to storm victims, it can't be easy to watch a top ally walk in lockstep with his rival just days before the culmination of an incredibly close race. After all, it was Christie who was tapped to drive the Romney message home in August as the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention.
"I'm sure the Romney campaign wishes an effective surrogate like Chris Christie could be out blanketing the swing states," said Hogan Gidley, a Republican strategist and former aide to Rick Santorum. "But having served as governor, Romney understands the governor's duty is first and foremost."
Still, those reading the political tea leaves were left musing who got the better end of the deal. Some questioned whether Obama was visiting New Jersey, rather than another storm-damaged state, to defuse Christie as a campaign weapon for Romney — a claim White House press secretary Jay Carney rejected. "This is not a time for politics," he said aboard Air Force One.
Others wondered whether Christie, a popular Republican in a left-leaning state, was keeping just a speck of distance between himself and Romney, lest the former Massachusetts governor lose on Tuesday, leaving the 2016 Republican nomination wide open.
Either way, it's impossible to discount that a joint appearance with Obama offers a high-profile chance to appear stately, in charge — even presidential.6 comments on this story
"Given the governor will be running for re-election next year, it doesn't hurt his standing, particularly with independents, to be seen as standing with Obama," said Brigid Harrison, a political scientist at New Jersey's Montclair State University. "And for a governor who clearly has made his intention to seek his party's nomination in 2016, to be appearing side-by-side with the president really lends his public persona some cache and credibility."
Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed to this report.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP