Cutting short a campaign trip to Florida, President Obama asked Americans Friday to pray for the victims of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado “and for all the victims of less-publicized acts of violence that plague our communities every single day.”
“Such violence, such evil, is senseless,” Mr. Obama told supporters at a campaign event in Fort Myers, Fla. “If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious.”
News of the shootings caused Mr. Obama to change the tone of the campaign rally, and to cancel another campaign event planned for Winter Park, Fla. As the president delivered his somber message, some supporters in the audience still called out to him boisterously, and cheered loudly. The president asked the audience for quiet.
“I know many of you came here today for a campaign event,” he said. “I was looking forward to having a fun conversation with you about some really important matters we face as a country, and the differences between myself and my opponent in this election. But there are going to be other days for politics. This, I think, is a day of prayers and reflection.”
Republican challenger Mitt Romney called for national unity in the wake of the stunning attack during an abbreviated campaign stop Friday afternoon.
Mr. Romney spoke for about four minutes during an appearance in Bow, N.H., and avoided politics entirely while reflecting on the early-morning movie theater shooting that has left at least 12 people dead.
Speaking to a crowd at Coastal Forest Products, a small business in New Hampshire, Mr. Romney told attendees that he was there “not as a man running for office,” but as a husband, father and American mourning the loss of a dozen lives.
“Ann and I join the president, first lady and all of America to share our deepest condolences,” he said. “This is a time for each of us to look into our hearts and remember how much we love each other and how much we care for America.”
Mr. Obama said many parents in the audience no doubt reacted to the shootings the same way he did, by thinking of their children.
“My daughters go to the movies,” Mr. Obama said. “What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theater, as so many of our kids do every day? Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight. But for those parents who may not be so lucky, we have to embrace them and let them know we will be there for them as a nation.”
The president then asked for a moment of silence, and bowed his head.
He said the federal government will aid in any way possible “to bring whoever is responsible for this heinous crime to justice.” Authorities in Colorado have in custody a 24-year-old suspect who is believed to be the lone gunman.
The Obama campaign has asked TV affiliates in Colorado only to pull its negative ads targeting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for his time at Bain Capital and his tax records. The super PAC working on Mr. Obama’s behalf has suspended its advertising in Colorado as well.
Mr. Romney’s campaign announced a similar suspension of political ads in Colorado, as did independent super PACs supporting both candidates.
“We have asked affiliates to pull down our contrast advertising for the time being,” said campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “It takes time for stations to be able to do this, but we are making every effort.”
The president said authorities might never understand what motivated the gunman.
“We may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this,” Mr. Obama said. But he added, “we do know what makes life worth living.”
“What matters at the end of the day is not the small things,” he said. “It’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us in our daily lives. Ultimately it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.”
Mr. Obama, who said he had spoken with both Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan by phone during the morning, then departed for Washington.
• David Hill contributed to this report.