By JOSH LEDERMAN and
WASHINGTON — Fresh off his strongest fundraising month this year, President Barack Obama is looking to raise millions of dollars from celebrities and wealthy donors in California with just one month left in a tightening race.
The two-day swing through the solidly Democratic state highlights the critical role that fundraising will play in the campaign’s final weeks as Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, escalate their barrage of television ads in competitive states like Ohio. The president is to return there Tuesday.
Romney, campaigning in up-for-grabs Florida, sought to build on the momentum from a debate performance last week that even Democrats conceded was “masterful.” The Republican told a crowd of about 12,000 in Port St. Lucie that he had enjoyed himself, ticking off a list of Obama shortcomings he said he had exposed during the first debate.
“Now of course, days later, we’re hearing his excuses,” Romney said. “And next January we’ll be watching him leave the White House for the last time.”
As Romney finished speaking, someone in the crowd of supporters behind him held up a giant Israeli flag alongside smaller American flags, underscoring the amplified role that foreign affairs and the Middle East is playing as the presidential race draws to a close. Romney on Monday plans a major foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute, intended to throw Obama back on his heels over his handling of unrest in Libya and elsewhere.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki, dismissing what she called Romney’s fourth or fifth attempt to explain his global intentions, said the bar is high for Romney to convince voters he’s prepared to be commander in chief.
“We are not going to be lectured by someone who’s been an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy every time he sticks his toe in the foreign policy waters,” Psaki said aboard Air Force One as Obama made his way to California.
Even as Romney sought to reap further rewards from his debate performance, a string of good news for the president threatened to steal the former Massachusetts governor’s spotlight.
A jobs report Friday showing unemployment at the lowest levels of Obama’s presidency was quickly followed Saturday by a fundraising report showing Obama and Democrats had raised $181 million in September. It was their best fundraising month of the campaign, but fell short of their record $190 million raised in September 2008 as the president campaigned for his first term.
Romney’s campaign has not released its report for the month, and Republicans sought to downplay Obama’s financial advantage. The party’s national chairman, Reince Priebus, said he had been counting all along on being outraised by Obama and Democrats.
“This isn’t going to come down to money. This is going to come down to heart,” Priebus said. “We’ll beat them on the ground, and we’ll have all the money we need to be competitive.”
After trailing Romney in the money race for most of the summer, Obama is back on top and pulling out all the stops to keep it that way. In what will be his final fundraising trip out West this election, Obama is enlisting his celebrity pals — from actors to singers to chefs — to donate to his campaign and encourage their fans to do the same.
In one event alone, a late-night soiree high above the Los Angeles skyline, Obama expected to rake in $3.75 million. Wolfgang Puck’s WP24 in the Ritz-Carlton hotel will host the $25,000-per-person event for about 150 supporters.
Former President Bill Clinton was to join Obama earlier Sunday for a more intimate gathering with elite, longtime donors at the home of entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg. Then on to the main event: A star-studded concert at the Nokia Theatre with entertainment by actor George Clooney and musical guests Stevie Wonder, Jon Bon Jovi and Katy Perry.
As Obama played for California cash, his surrogates took to the talk shows to pound the theme that Romney’s success in last week’s debate was propped up entirely by dishonesty.
The president “was a little taken aback at the brazenness with which Gov. Romney walked away from so many of the positions on which he’s run, walked away from his record,” said David Axelrod, a top Obama strategist. “That’s something we’re going to have to make an adjustment for in these subsequent debates.”
At the same time, Ann Romney was working to soften her husband’s image, a frequent refrain as Romney’s campaign seeks to broaden his support among centrist voters in the race’s final weeks. Introducing her husband on Sunday, Mrs. Romney called him “a good and decent person” who had helped others throughout his life.
“Now we’re going to get a chance for him to really care for others, because we’re going to have the chance to see him get people back to work again,” she said.
Both campaigns were prepping their running mates for Thursday’s vice presidential debate — and working to keep expectations low lest their candidate underperform.
On Sunday Priebus called Vice President Joe Biden “a gifted orator,” while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who challenged Romney in the GOP primary, suggested Paul Ryan would hold back on any hostility out of respect for Biden’s status as a senior statesman.
While in California, the only official presidential business for Obama comes Monday in Keene, Calif., where he will designate as a national monument the home of Latino leader Cesar Chavez, the founder of the United Farmworkers Union who died in 1993.
Yet even that move has political overtones, resonating with some Hispanic voters — a crucial bloc in Obama’s 2008 coalition and a critical component of his 2012 plan to keep Romney at bay.
Priebus spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union.” Axelrod spoke on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and Gingrich on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”