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Obama and Christie make unlikely traveling companions

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie applauds at a campaign rally for U.S. Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon of Connecticut in Stamfor
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie applauds at a campaign rally for U.S. Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon of Connecticut in Stamfor

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - No one's calling it a "campaign" event. But it will surely dominate the presidential campaign on Wednesday when Democratic President Barack Obama and New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie inspect storm damage in the hard hit coastal state - together.

Had Obama been traveling with any old Republican governor, few would have taken notice.

But Christie is not any old governor. He's young, at 50, and a possible Republican presidential contender as soon as 2016, should Mitt Romney happen to lose.

And he's not just any critic of Obama. As keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention in August, he was the party's critic-in-chief.

Christie has continued to play that role as one of the highest-profile surrogates for the Republican presidential nominee, Romney.

Indeed, it would be hard to find a more unlikely duo six days before a presidential election - and Christie knows it.

"If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don't know me," Christie said Tuesday.

He was responding not to the announcement of the joint tour, which had yet to become public, but to questions about all the praise he has been heaping on Obama during and after Sandy hit New Jersey.

The unlikely partnership began just hours after the worst of the storm knocked out power for 2.4 million people in New Jersey, south and west of New York City. Christie was quick to applaud Obama and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in interviews on major television networks on Tuesday morning.

"The federal government response has been great. I was on the phone at midnight again last night with the president personally," he told NBC's "Today" program.

"The president has been outstanding in this. The folks at FEMA ... have been excellent," said Christie, once thought to be a contender for the White House this time around or possibly Romney's vice presidential pick.

"I don't give a damn about Election Day. It doesn't matter a lick to me at the moment," Christie later told reporters in a press conference about the storm damage. "I've got bigger fish to fry."

Sandy made landfall in New Jersey on Monday night, leaving behind a trail of flooded homes, toppled trees and downed power lines in the nation's most densely populated region. At least 30 people were reported killed along the eastern seaboard.

Obama's handling of the storm's aftermath and Romney's response to it have the potential to become political issues, and both campaigns are taking care to avoid missteps.

The president again canceled his formal campaign activities for Wednesday to deal with storm recovery efforts. Romney on Tuesday transformed what was intended originally to be a campaign stop into a storm relief event in Ohio.

Liberal group Americans United for Change was quick to circulate Christie's comments.

Earlier on "CBS This Morning," Christie said he spoke with Obama three times on Monday as the storm hit. Obama declared New Jersey a major disaster area so the state can quickly receive federal aid.

"I can't thank the president enough for that," Christie told CBS.

And what about Romney?

Asked on FOX News on Tuesday whether he would tour stricken parts of his state with the Republican nominee, Christie said:

"I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested. I've got a job to do here in New Jersey that's much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff," he said.

(Reporting By Susan Heavey; Editing by Fred Barbash and Claudia Parsons)

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