WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney declared a fleeting truce for partisan jabs Tuesday as the U.S. remembered the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but campaign politics crackled through even their somber observances.
The campaigns pulled their negative ads and scheduled no rallies. But both candidates stayed in the public eye as the nation marked the 11th anniversary of the jetliner crashes that left nearly 3,000 dead.
Obama observed a White House moment of silence, attended a memorial service at the Pentagon, visited Arlington National Cemetery and then met privately with wounded soldiers and their families at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. But former President Bill Clinton carried on with a campaign stop for Obama in Florida, and the Democrat's camp issued registration appeals under first lady Michelle Obama's name.
In an echo of his usual campaign speech, Obama noted that the war in Iraq is over and troops are on track to leave Afghanistan in 2014.
"Al-Qaida's leadership has been devastated, and Osama bin Laden will never threaten us again," Obama said at the Pentagon. "Our country is safer and our people are resilient."
Romney, in Reno, Nevada, to address a meeting of the National Guard, indirectly but clearly drew distinctions with Obama by spelling out his own national security goals.
"I wish I could say the world is less dangerous now," he said.
Polls show Obama leading Romney on terrorism and national security issues, but both issues are 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.
After declaring that the day was not the proper moment to address differences with the president, Romney took issue with threatened cuts in defense and the handling of disability claims and called for more assertive international leadership.
"This century must be an American century," Romney said. "It is now our duty to steer it onto the path of freedom, peace and prosperity. America must lead the free world, and the free world must lead the entire world."
He alluded to his criticism of Obama over threatened cuts in military spending that would kick in if Congress and the president don't find agreement on major federal deficit reductions. While acknowledging that the war in Iraq is over and the U.S. is on a path to exit Afghanistan, Romney warned: "The return of our troops cannot and must not be used as an excuse to hollow out our military through devastating defense budget cuts."
Obama has insisted on a deficit deal that includes both spending cuts and increases in tax increases. Romney has blamed Obama for negotiating a deal that would require steep Pentagon cuts if a broad deficit agreement failed to materialize. But in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" last week, Romney said he also disagreed with Republicans who voted for that same deal. Among those was Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
For Romney, the appearance before the National Guard also provided an opportunity to address men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Romney has been criticized for not mentioning Afghanistan in his speech to the Republican National Convention two weeks ago. While Romney said Tuesday the U.S. goal should be to transfer security to Afghan forces in 2014 - the same timeline as Obama's - he cautioned, "We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders."
Obama's public appearances were largely spent in quiet contemplation, first during a moment of silence at the White House at precisely the time that that American Airlines Flight 11 became the first hijacked plane to hit the World Trade Center 11 years ago.
The first couple then attended a memorial and placed a wreath at the Pentagon, where another plane hit on Sept. 11. Afterward, they traveled to nearby Arlington National Cemetery to walk among the white headstones in a section devoted to the remains of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This anniversary allows us to renew our faith that even the darkest night gives way to a brighter dawn," Obama said.
In Chicago, as he prepared to depart for Reno, Romney shook 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 in New York.
To ensure at least a brief respite, both camps took their negative ads off the air, following precedent. A pro-Obama political group also withdrew its negative ads for the day. One pro-Romney group, American Crossroads, continued to air its anti-Obama ads.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed nearly 3,000 in the United States and were 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.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Ben Feller and Stacy A. Anderson contributed to this report.