WASHINGTON | For a day, at least, President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney stopped assailing each other and spoke as heartbroken parents.
The Colorado movie theater massacre upended the presidential campaign on Friday, obliging both candidates to cast aside the increasingly bitter tone of the race and reach for a rare moment of American harmony. Yet the moment itself was a political test, for a president charged with consoling a nation and for a challenger needing to show that he could rise to the occasion.
“There are going to be other days for politics,” Obama said from one key electoral state, Florida. From another one, New Hampshire, Romney said much the same.
It was more than an unusual case of agreement between the political foes. At times, they sounded just like each other, speaking of evil and of prayer, of the unfulfilled dreams of those killed, of the need to put aside daily and petty grievances to appreciate life and show compassion to others.
The president openly wondered of his 14-year-old and 11-year-old daughters: “What if Malia and Sasha had been in the theater?”
Addressing a crowd that had gathered for what was expected to be a raucous political rally, he said somberly, “Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I’m sure you will do the same with your children.”
Likewise, Romney said to his audience, “Each one of us will hold our kids a little closer.” He said, “I stand before you today not as a man running for office, but as a father and grandfather, a husband, an American.”
Amid their calls for unity and prayer, both men said nothing of gun control, a polarizing issue that has been all but absent from the campaign debate this year. Both Romney and Obama have shifted with the times, moving away from stances that favored tougher gun control laws.
The issue may rise anew.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a gun control advocate, said, “You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it. … Instead of the two people — President Obama and Gov. Romney — talking in broad things about they want to make the world a better place, OK, tell us how.”
On Friday, Obama and Romney swiftly stripped their day of overt campaigning that surely would have seemed crass given the enormity of the tragedy. They scrambled to yank all their television spots, attack ads or otherwise, from Colorado stations — though strongly critical ads continued elsewhere. Both campaigns pulled their top surrogates off the politically driven talk shows this Sunday.
Nothing else mattered as the country absorbed the news that a man opened fire on people watching the new Batman movie in an Aurora, Colo., theater outside Denver. Twelve people were killed and dozens more were wounded by a suspect said to be using an assault rifle, a shotgun and a handgun in the attack.
“If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile,” Obama said in Fort Myers, Fla.
“What matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives,” Obama said. “Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love another.”
Romney spoke outside a Bow, N.H., business, at a podium stripped of campaign paraphernalia, in front of a large American flag. He set a tone by saying that he and his wife, Ann, joined Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in offering condolences to those whose lives had been shattered.
“This is a time for each of us to look into our hearts and remember how much we love one another, and how much we love and how much we care for our great country,” Romney said.
In Florida, Obama was notified at dawn about the shootings. He canceled a second Florida event and came back to the White House, immediately getting an Oval Office briefing about the investigation. The U.S. flag at the White House was lowered to half-staff, and Obama ordered similar action at all federal facilities.
Obama telephoned Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates and told him to expect full support from the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies.
It was unclear whether, after the first shock, the episode would inject the volatile issue of gun rights into the election debate.
Twenty years ago, polls showed that a substantial majority — nearly 80 percent in 1990 — supported stricter limits on guns. Now Americans appear evenly divided between those who want tougher restrictions and those who want to stick with current laws.
As a U.S. senator, Obama voted to leave gun makers and dealers open to civil lawsuits, and as an Illinois state lawmaker he supported a ban on all forms of semiautomatic weapons and tighter state restrictions generally on firearms. Romney backed some gun control measures when he was governor of Massachusetts, and when he challenged Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994 he declared, “I don’t line up with the NRA.”
This spring, competing for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney told the NRA he was a guardian of the Second Amendment.
Following last year’s killing of six people and the wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., Obama called for a series of steps to “keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place.”
Among those steps was a better federal background check system. The administration said Friday that it has indeed improved the amount and quality of information poured into that system, allowing background checks to be more thorough.
But the administration has offered no detailed, public explanation of how it is following up on all of Obama’s previous promises, and it had no comment about any need for new legislation.
“The president believes that we need to take common-sense measures that protect Second Amendment rights of Americans, while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing law do not get them,” presidential spokesman Jay Carney said.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the Republican candidate believes the “best way to prevent gun violence is to vigorously enforce our laws.”
Others, particularly Mayor Bloomberg, were looking for more specificity.
The question is simple, he said in a radio interview: “What are they going to do about guns?”
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas and Tamara Lush in Fort Myers, Fla., Steve Peoples in Bow, N.H., Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., and Mark Smith, Laurie Kellman, and David Espo in Washington contributed to this report.