President Barack Obama is cutting short his two-day Florida campaign swing.
He will use a previously scheduled campaign stop in Fort Myers to address the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. But he’s canceling his Winter Park campaign event, and will return to the White House “in light of the tragedy in Colorado,” the campaign said in a statement.
The White House issued this statement:
“Michelle and I are shocked and saddened by the horrific and tragic shooting in Colorado. Federal and local law enforcement are still responding, and my Administration will do everything that we can to support the people of Aurora in this extraordinarily difficult time. We are committed to bringing whoever was responsible to justice, ensuring the safety of our people, and caring for those who have been wounded. As we do when confronted by moments of darkness and challenge, we must now come together as one American family. All of us must have the people of Aurora in our thoughts and prayers as they confront the loss of family, friends, and neighbors, and we must stand together with them in the challenging hours and days to come.”
Reporters traveling with the president reported he hadn’t been seen publicly as Air Force One prepared to leave Palm Beach International Airport.
The president spent Thursday night in Palm Beach County after an evening campaign rally west of West Palm Beach.
His hopes of winning re-election may hinge on Florida, and Obama flew into South Florida on Thursday evening to court two key constituencies: seniors and Jews, groups that may determine if he gets a second term in the White House.
At the retiree-rich Century Village condominium community west of West Palm Beach, Obama took aim at Republican challenger Mitt Romney with one of the most potent weapons in the Democratic arsenal: protection of Medicare. Romney, the president warned, "plans to turn Medicare into a voucher program."
The crowd booed. And Obama continued: "If the voucher isn't worth what it takes to buy health insurance in the private marketplace, you've got to make up the difference. You're out of luck. You're on your own."
Barbara Magovsky, 74, who moved to Century Village from Massachusetts eight years ago, said Medicare is one of the most important issues to her and her neighbors. Magovsky said she isn't a fan of Romney, her former governor.
Many of Century Village's 14,000 residents are Jewish, and Obama pledged unwavering support for Israel. "Under my administration we haven't just preserved the unbreakable bond with Israel, we've strengthened it," he said. "Now's the time to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect Israel's security and I want you to know that's something that should transcend party."
He decried the recent killings of Israelis by a suicide bomber in Bulgaria as "these barbaric attacks."
The Obama campaign has been working overtime to shore up support among Jewish voters, a long-standing Democratic voting bloc being targeted by Republicans attempting to convince them that the president isn't sufficiently supportive of Israel. Rhetoric about Israel is about to heat up, with Romney planning a trip there in coming days.
Senior voters are also vital to the president's re-election hopes of capturing Florida's 29 electoral votes, more than 10 percent of the 270 needed to win. They vote in great numbers — about 70 percent of Florida seniors voted in 2008, compared to 48 percent of 18 to 24 year olds — and, at least in South Florida, they tend to vote Democratic.
"The older you are, the more likely you are to vote," said Charles Zelden, a professor of history and legal studies who specializes in politics and voting at Nova Southeastern University. He said Obama needs a big turnout of South Florida seniors.
The 36-minute speech was little different from what Obama has said elsewhere on the campaign trail. He described himself as a champion of the middle class, which he described as "the folks that are the heartbeat of this country." He said Romney wants to cut taxes for the wealthy, reduce regulations on banks and insurance companies, and slash education and research.
Obama wowed the crowd of 675 shoehorned into adjoining rooms at the Century Village Clubhouse. The president kissed, and was kissed by, many of the older women at the event as he shook hands on his way in.
"That's the most kisses I've gotten at any campaign event," he joked. And when a cellphone started ringing, Obama said: "Who's that calling? Is that Michelle? That's because she heard all those women were kissing me. She got a little nervous. She's getting a little jealous."
In a nod to the older crowd, the usual backdrop of standing supporters for presidential events was changed. The people in back of the president sat at tables that might normally be used for cards and other social gatherings at the Clubhouse.
Among them, Mae Duke, 85, president of the Century Village Democratic Club. She said voters here, where Obama won 69 percent of the vote in 2008, still strongly support the president and his party.
His speech Thursday hit all the right notes, Duke said afterward. "This is our credo. This is what we believe," she said.
Not everyone was happy to see the president. On Okeechobee Boulevard near the entrance to Century Village, the Romney campaign arranged for a contingent of sign-waving protesters.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who many conservatives would like to see as Romney's running mate, charged Thursday on the "Fox & Friends" TV show that Obama is "not a believer in the free enterprise system…. The fundamental fact is that this president believes at his core, and has always believed, that the way the economy grows is when he and government have more power to take money and redistribute it into the economy."
And the Romney campaign's policy director, Lanhee Chen, said in a statement that the Republican challenger is the candidate who would "preserve Medicare for today's seniors while strengthening it for future generations." He said Obama "has offered no serious plan of his own to save Medicare and is content to use it as nothing more than a political issue."
In other parts of the country, Democrats have been reluctant to appear with Obama. But he's not toxic to South Florida Democrats. At least half a dozen state legislators were on hand. And state Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, managed to maneuver his way to the area in back of Obama partway during the speech — where he was easily in the video images captured by television cameras.
The president was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and the congressman who represents Century Village, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton – who arrived with the president after receiving his first ride on Air Force One.
Obama, who began his stumping tour of the state in Jacksonville, was scheduled to spend Thursday night in upscale Manalapan before traveling Friday to campaign events in Fort Myers and Orlando. "This is going to be a close contest like it is in every presidential election in Florida right up until the end," Wasserman Schultz said during a conference call this week with reporters. "We're not ceding any corner of Florida."
Staff writers Brett Clarkson and Karla Bowsher contributed to this report.
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