PHILADELPHIA — For a day, the presidential contest was almost all about money — money to wage the presidential contest, that is. Mitt Romney promised to help Americans earn more, but he and President Barack Obama focused mostly on private fundraisers and big checks to fuel their 40-day sprint to Election Day.
Obama courted donors in Washington on Friday, while his Republican challenger did the same in Philadelphia and Boston, both men trading swing-state rallies for fundraising in places unlikely to play a significant role in the election of the next president on Nov. 6.
Romney admitted as much during a fundraiser at Philadelphia's exclusive Union League Club. The former Massachusetts governor said it would surprise everyone if he carried Pennsylvania, a state that hasn't supported a Republican presidential candidate in nearly a quarter century.
"We really would shock people if early in the evening of Nov. 6 it looked like Pennsylvania was going to come our way and actually did come our way. That can happen," Romney told about 200 donors who paid between $2,500 and $50,000 to hear his remarks.
"My priority is job creation and growing incomes," Romney continued. "My priority is not trying to punish people who have been successful."
The former businessman's remarks came at the first of three private fundraisers sandwiched around a midday rally. Obama kept close to Washington with a schedule of three fundraisers of his own.
As the candidates asked for cash, their campaigns prepared for next week's high-stakes meeting on the debate stage — the first of three presidential debates and perhaps Romney's best chance to reverse the recent Obama gains suggested by opinion polls.
Both men worked international affairs into their politicking Friday with separate telephone calls to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Romney criticized Obama for not meeting with Netanyahu this week during his visit to the United Nations, where the prime minister declared the world has only until next summer to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb. Aides to both candidates did not mention that dire declaration in their reports of the calls.
But money was largely the focus of the day.
In an election where the two sides already have collected more than $1 billion, each campaign has committed millions more they haven't yet raised to help blanket key states with television ads, drive national voter turnout operations and support massive teams of paid staff and consultants. Private events at places like the Union League Club, where dress codes prohibit wrinkled clothes and huge crystal chandeliers hang from ceilings, are regular occurrences for campaigns seeking the modern-day lifeblood of presidential politics.
Romney and the Republican Party had raised about $536 million through the end of August, the most recent reporting data available. Obama and the Democratic Party had collected about $655 million through the same period.
Both camps have been spending furiously, mostly on expensive television advertising in battleground states. That doesn't count the hundreds of millions of dollars likely to be spent by "super" political committees, which can raise and spend unlimited sums. Republican-leaning super PACs and Romney's campaign have outspent efforts for Obama's re-election since mid-July, ad data show.
Fundraising can present image risks for both sides.
During the 2008 campaign, Republican John McCain's campaign aired advertising calling Obama the "biggest celebrity in the world," showing his image along with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Obama's brushes with fame and fortune have only grown in the years since.
The president's fundraising trips often combine big money with the mansions and chic brownstones of the nation's elite. Red-carpet stars like George Clooney, Spike Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tyler Perry have all had Obama over for big-dollar dinners. At one fundraiser in Seattle's suburbs last spring, Microsoft founder Bill Gates stood beside a grand piano as Obama spoke at the home of Jeff Brotman, the co-founder of Costco.
And Obama's campaign could have easily staged its own version of the music world's Lollapalooza during his re-election bid: Fundraisers have been headlined by such acts as the Foo Fighters, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. The campaign is planning a "30 Days to Victory" concert on Oct. 7 in Los Angeles featuring Jon Bon Jovi, Earth Wind & Fire, Jennifer Hudson, Katy Perry and Stevie Wonder.
The event will try to eclipse a recent fundraiser with Jay-Z and Beyonce that raised about $4 million in New York.
On Friday, the president was to deliver remarks at a finance event at the Capital Hilton in Washington, with tickets starting at $250 and going as high as $10,000 per couple. He then was attending a smaller fundraiser at a private residence before returning to the hotel for a third event.
Obama also met with advisers Friday at Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington to prepare for the debates before heading Sunday to Nevada to hold practice sessions. His campaign released a political memo on Friday saying it expects Romney "to be a prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater."
Romney, too, planned to spend much of his weekend in debate preparation, a task he began three months ago.
But he spent more time fundraising on Friday than anything else. And like Obama, Romney faces fundraising-related risks.
As polls suggest his campaign is moving in the wrong direction, Romney is facing calls from within his party to spend less time with donors and more time with voters. Less than a week ago, he promised to do just that and spent three days this week campaigning across Ohio and Virginia. But he was back to fundraising Thursday night at a single Washington event that generated $5 million.
There, Romney was introduced by Bill Marriott, the chairman of Marriott International.
"He rescued me just as he's going to rescue this great country," Marriott proclaimed after sharing a story about boating on the same New Hampshire lake where both men own vacation homes.
The campaign would not say how much Romney raised at the Philadelphia event, but he was expected to generate at least $7 million at two Boston fundraisers Friday evening. The two-day total was expected to exceed $13 million.
Ken Thomas reported from Washington. AP writer Jack Gillum contributed to this report.