By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama canceled campaign appearances in Ohio on Wednesday and scheduled a trip to New Jersey instead to survey damage caused by powerful storm Sandy, a move designed to portray him as a strong leader a week before Election Day.
Obama, who is in a close race with Republican rival Mitt Romney, has dropped three days of campaigning in battleground states to oversee the government response to the storm, which crippled New York City and much of the eastern United States.
The White House has taken pains to show Obama at work, releasing readouts on briefings he has attended and calls he has made to governors and mayors of states and cities affected by the storm.
After a meeting with emergency management officials, Obama visited the national headquarters of the American Red Cross, where he warned that the storm was not over and encouraged the public to donate to help its victims.
At least 40 people were killed in the storm.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the families who have lost loved ones ... Obviously, this is something that is heartbreaking for the entire nation," he said from a podium with Red Cross workers in the background.
"I want to repeat my message to the federal government: No bureaucracy, no red tape. Get resources where they're needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration, because the recovery process obviously in a place like New Jersey is going to take a significant amount of time."
Obama had already skipped several political events to be in Washington for the storm and its aftermath.
The Democratic president's efforts have drawn approval, even from some of his political opponents. New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie, a Romney supporter who will join Obama to survey the storm damage, praised the president for his response to the disaster.
Obama had originally been scheduled to hold political rallies in Ohio, a critical swing state that could determine who wins the November 6 election.
Romney also canceled some political events, but his campaign announced he would hold rallies in Florida - another battleground state - on Wednesday.
Obama squeezed in a mention of another swing state, North Carolina, while praising emergency workers for helping save lives.
"One of my favorite stories is down in North Carolina, the Coast Guard going out to save a sinking ship. They sent a rescue swimmer out, and the rescue swimmer said, 'Hi, I'm Dan. I understand you guys need a ride,'" Obama said.
"That kind of spirit of resilience and strength, but most importantly looking out for one another, that's why we always bounce back from these kinds of disasters."
BRIEFINGS, LATE NIGHT CALLS
Obama and Romney have tried to avoid coming across as overly political while millions of people across the eastern United States were hit by the storm late on Monday.
Obama held a video teleconference about the storm in the White House Situation Room on Tuesday with top members of his team, including Vice President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A White House official said Obama wanted to ensure federal agencies were doing everything they could to assist their state and local counterparts.
"I want everyone leaning forward on this. I don't want to hear that we didn't do something because bureaucracy got in the way," Obama told the meeting, according to the official.
The president received updates on the storm overnight and has signed several disaster declarations over the last few days.
On Tuesday afternoon he took part in a call with utility executives to "underscore that restoring power to the millions of Americans who lost electricity during Sandy is a top priority," and to look at ways that federal agencies could provide assistance towards that goal, the White House said.
Democrats hope his leadership during the storm and the attention that receives will make up for the lost campaign time in states such as Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and Colorado, where he has canceled events this week.
Obama and Romney are neck and neck in national polls, but the Democratic incumbent has held a slight lead in many of the swing states.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)