By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and his vanquished Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, sat down for lunch at the White House on Thursday as they sought to put their bitterly fought presidential campaign behind them and make a show of political harmony.
The two men chewed over the just-ended campaign during a meal of turkey chili and Southwestern grilled chicken salad in the dining room adjacent to the Oval Office. The visit was kept low key as Romney was brought in through a heavily guarded side entryway for a private one-on-one encounter.
News photographers were not allowed in for pictures. An official White House photo showed the two men standing in the Oval Office, shaking hands cordially in front of the presidential desk.
The lunch, which lasted a little more than an hour, appeared to be little more than a goodwill gesture aimed at salving wounds left open from a bitter campaign, including three contentious debates, in which Obama accused Romney of being an out-of-touch, secretive, rich elitist, and Romney said his opponent did not understand how to fix the U.S. economy.
Romney congratulated Obama for "the success of his campaign" and wished him well in his second four-year term, the White House said in a statement issued after the lunch.
"The focus of their discussion was on America's leadership in the world and the importance of maintaining that leadership position in the future. They pledged to stay in touch, particularly if opportunities to work together on shared interests arise in the future," the White House said.
The two men face sharply different futures. Obama is busily gearing up for his second term. The grandstand from which he will view his inaugural parade in January is being constructed on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House.
Romney, who was said to have been shocked that his campaign fell short, has few apparent immediate plans. A week ago he was photographed visiting Disneyland in California with several grandchildren.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that Obama was interested in hearing some of Romney's ideas and sharing campaign experiences with him. Obama said during his election victory speech that he wanted to sit down and talk to Romney.
"Without giving any specifics, this was a conversation the president wanted to have with Governor Romney as he mentioned the night of the election," Carney said.
There was no job offer for Romney in the works, he said.
It was not immediately clear whether the two men discussed the top priority facing the president and Congress, the prospect of reaching a deal to avoid a year-end fiscal calamity when Bush-era tax cuts expire and a variety of budget cuts kick in.
Romney had campaigned on sharply cutting government spending, saying any program worth borrowing money from China to pay for would have to be justified. Obama has focused more on raising taxes on the wealthy. Both Democrats and Republicans are far apart on reaching a deal with a month to go.
While Republican leaders in Washington had wholeheartedly backed Romney's candidacy, there have been no indications that he has been brought into the conversation over the so-called fiscal cliff.
"Romney has never been viewed as a Washington insider and is one that never really connected with those inside the Beltway. And he tried to capitalize on that during the campaign. He does not have close ties to Republicans inside of Washington, but he's still respected as a very effective businessman," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
Indeed, Republican leaders have shown every sign of wanting to put Romney in the rearview mirror after he was quoted as telling donors in a conference call that Obama won because his administration had doled out "gifts" to blacks, Hispanics and young voters to encourage them to turn out for him.
Party leaders have largely disavowed the comments and have engaged in some soul-searching on what it will take to get in position to win the White House in 2016.
The White House visit for Romney was a chance to begin rebuilding his political stature after his party's disappointing outcome in the November 6 election. He also paid a visit to his vice presidential nominee, Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and a potential 2016 Republican presidential contender.
Ryan said he remains grateful to Romney.
"I'm proud of the principles and ideas we advanced during the campaign and the commitment we share to expanding opportunity and promoting economic security for American families," Ryan said in a statement.
Romney loyalists have been defending the honor of the former Massachusetts governor, who has remained largely out of sight since his loss.
"Losing is just losing," Stuart Stevens, Romney's top campaign strategist, said in a Washington Post opinion article this week. "It's not a mandate to throw out every idea that the candidate championed, and I would hope it's not seen as an excuse to show disrespect for a good man who fought hard for values we admire."
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Mark Felsenthal and Jeff Mason; Editing by Vicki Allen and Eric Beech)