LOS ANGELES — On a last dash for cash in the celebrity scene of California, President Barack Obama on Sunday took a good-natured shot as his own underwhelming debate performance, marveling at how his friends in the entertainment business could turn in flawless performances every time.
"I can't always say the same," Obama told thousands of supporters, who got the joke right away. It was Obama's most direct acknowledgment that his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, won their debate on Wednesday as a tight race rolled into its last month.
Obama spoke at the start of two-day fundraising swing through California, his final one out West of this election, and one that was expected to raise several millions dollars for advertising efforts to the finish. He appeared on stage after comments by actor George Clooney and performances by Katy Perry, Stevie Wonder, Jon Bon Jovi — and before a night-capping dinner for 150 guests at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant at $25,000 per person.
The Republican presidential nominee, meanwhile, sought to build on the momentum from a debate performance last week that even Democrats conceded was "masterful." Campaigning in up-for-grabs Florida, Romney 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 ended his day in Virginia, where on Monday he planned a major foreign policy address in which he will criticize Obama's 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.
The president told about 6,000 supporters at the Nokia Theatre that he had bad days and made mistakes in the 2008 campaign, too, but nobody remembers that because he won.
"We goofed up. I goofed up," he said of 2008. "But the American people carried us forward."
He then moved onto late-night soiree at Puck's WP24 restaurant, which was expected to rake in $3.75 million. Former President Bill Clinton joined Obama earlier Sunday for a more intimate gathering with elite, longtime donors at the home of entertainment mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg.
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.
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 Josh Lederman contributed to this story from Washington. Peoples reported from Port St. Lucie, Fla.