WASHINGTON - The presidential candidates are taking a break from their partisan attacks — but not all their politicking — to remember the 9/11 anniversary.
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney pulled their negative ads and avoided appearing at campaign rallies in honor of the 11th anniversary of the terrorist strike. But Obama's camp sent former President Bill Clinton to swing-state Florida for an evening rally eight weeks before Election Day. And the day offered Romney a chance in a speech to a meeting of the National Guard to address criticism that he didn't include a salute to the troops or reference the war in Afghanistan in his convention speech.
"With less than two months to go before Election Day, I would normally speak to a gathering like this about the differences between my and my opponent's plans for our military and for our national security," Romney told thousands packed into the Reno, Nev., convention hall. "There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not it."
He went on to thank the troops who protect our country, "including those who traced the trail of terror to that walled compound in Abbottabad and the SEALs who delivered justice to Osama bin Laden," Romney said in a nod to his rival without mentioning his name. The remark won loud applause.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama observed the anniversary with moments of silence on the White House's South Lawn and at the Pentagon, the target of one of the four planes hijacked by al-Qaida operatives.
"Eleven times, we have paused in remembrance, in reflection, in unity and in purpose," Obama told the crowd of family members of the Pentagon victims. "This is never an easy day."
Afterward, Obama shook hands with the Pentagon crowd, including a man in a Romney hat who got his autograph.
The president then went to Arlington National Cemetery, where he visited the graves of recent war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq and placed presidential challenge coins in front of their headstones. He later planned to visit wounded soldiers and their families at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
At the time of the somber White House observance, Romney was shaking hands with firefighters at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, their yellow trucks forming a backdrop that recalled the sacrifice of first responders to the attacks. The Republican nominee then flew to Nevada to address the National Guard, whose members deployed as part of the military response. The speech was an opportunity for Romney to address criticism from Democrats that he's not ready to be commander in chief or that he hasn't provided enough detail about how he would handle Afghanistan — attacks that stopped for the day but were sure to continue in the coming weeks.
Obama's goal is to end all U.S. combat there by the end of 2014, while Romney has avoided specifics about troop numbers. Romney repeated his position in the speech Tuesday that his goal would be for U.S. troops to hand over security to Afghan troops by the same deadline, while evaluating the conditions on the ground and soliciting the best advice of commanders.
"We can all agree that our men and women in the field deserve a clear mission, that they deserve the resources and resolute leadership they need to complete that mission, and that they deserve a country that will provide for their needs when they come home," he said.
Vice President Joe Biden attended a memorial service in his home state of Pennsylvania, where one of the hijacked airliners crashed in the fields of Shanksville. He told the families of the victims that "what they did for this country is still etched in the minds of not only you but millions of Americans forever."
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, was in his home state Tuesday with no public events but behind the scenes finalized contracts with at least one Milwaukee television station to begin running ads asking voters to re-elect him to an eighth House term that he hopes to never serve. Wisconsin law allows Ryan to seek both offices simultaneously but only serve in one if he wins both. Ryan congressional ads start the same week Romney's commercials start in Wisconsin — a double-dip for the GOP ticket in a state that voted for Obama in 2008 but that they would like to put into play.
But negative ads were off the air Tuesday, following precedent for the anniversary. The 9/11 attack killed nearly 3,000 in the United States and was followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least 1,987 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and 4,475 in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. At least 1,059 more coalition troops have also died in the Afghanistan war and 318 in Iraq, according to iCasualties.org, an independent organization.
Tracking civilian deaths is much more difficult. According to the U.N., 13,057 civilians were killed in the Afghan conflict between 2007, when the U.N. began keeping statistics, and the first half of 2012. Going back to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, most estimates put the number of Afghan deaths in the war at more than 20,000. Estimates vary widely in Iraq, but most agree that at least 100,000 Iraqis were killed in war-related violence in the years between the invasion in 2003 and the U.S. withdrawal last December.
Polls show Obama leading Romney on terrorism and national security issues, but both are a low priority for voters in an election dominated by the economy. A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in July found 37 percent of voters called terrorism and security extremely important to their vote, while 54 percent said the economy and jobs were that important.