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 three-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, where the president will return Tuesday.
Romney, campaigning in up-for-grabs Florida, was preparing for a major foreign policy address Monday at the Virginia Military Institute intended to throw Obama back on his heels over his handling of Mideast unrest.
As Romney sought to build on the momentum from a debate performance last week that even Democrats conceded was "masterful," a string of good news for Obama 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."
Obama and Romney also traded accusations of lying in new television ads, with each side claiming its positions had been distorted by their opponent.
"Dishonest" was the name given to Obama's ad, using debate footage to argue Romney grossly misrepresented his own positions as well as Obama's on taxes. Meanwhile, Romney's campaign released a new ad claiming Obama is not telling the truth when he says Romney wants to cut $5 trillion in taxes.
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."
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Apopka, Fla., contributed to this report.