BY CLAIRE VEYRIRAS California News Service
WASHINGTON -- President Obama has dined atop San Francisco's Nob Hill, overlooked the Pacific from Corona Del Mar, and rubbed shoulders with celebrities at George Clooney's Hollywood mansion.
But as he returns to California Wednesday for his 15th trip as president, Obama has yet to venture more than a short drive from the Pacific Ocean, clinging to the wealthy coastline where donors can add to his campaign coffers.
The closest he has come to Bakersfield is Burbank, where he sat for an interview last October on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
This trip is no exception. Obama has stops planned Wednesday in Atherton and Redwood City and Thursday in Palo Alto. He is expected to raise several million dollars during his 16-hour visit.
When Obama comes to California it's for money -- big money.
A California News Service review of Obama's California trips reveals an unequalled fundraising focus. No state has come close to having fundraisers take up so much of his time when he visits.
By the time Obama leaves the state Thursday, 80 percent of his trips will have included at least one event to raise money. Of Obama's 52 California events to date, 35 have been fundraisers.
Raising money in California is a presidential tradition. Even President Bush, who lost California by considerable margins, tapped the state's wealthy donors.
Yet Obama's quick Northern California blitz, just two weeks after a high-priced gala at Clooney's Los Angeles home, highlights Obama's focus on California as a source of campaign dollars.
"I am surprised that it's only 80 percent," responded Michael D. Evans, chairman of the Fresno County Democratic Central Committee, when told the breakdown of the visits.
Only New York -- a 40-minute flight from Washington -- comes close to hosting as many Obama fundraisers as California. But these fundraisers constitute only a little more than a quarter of Obama's time in New York when they make up more than two-thirds of his time in California.
California is Obama's fundraising Mecca, having contributed $21 million through April 10 -- one fifth of his overall money -- to his re-election campaign. He has raised tens of millions more for the Democratic Party.
Last month, Obama gathered more than $2 million in California for his own campaign. At the Clooney dinner he raised $15 million for fellow Democrats.
Obama has divided his time between Northern and Southern California but hasn't stepped foot in the eastern two thirds of the state. He has visited Los Angeles 10 times and this trip to the Bay Area will mark his ninth visit there.
However the furthest inland he has ventured is Pomona in the south and Fremont in the north, both of which are within an hour drive from the beach.
"Obama's campaign strategy is a function of the Electoral College,'' said Jessica Trounstine, a professor of political science at the University of California, Merced.
"California is almost certain to give him all 55 of its electoral college votes, so it is largely a waste of precious campaign time and resources to visit (the Central Valley)," she said.
Obama's travel habits are fodder for his political opponents who ridicule his exclusive focus on California's wealthy coast and emphasize the challenges facing the rest of the state.
"While the president is hobnobbing with Hollywood elites at a $40,000 a plate fundraiser, people who live in the Central Valley are facing 17 percent unemployment -- double the national average,'' Kristin Olsen, Republican assemblywoman from Modesto, said in a statement released to reporters during Obama's last visit.
"One can only hope that he will grab a glance out the window of his plane at the Central Valley region and families he has chosen to ignore despite requests for visits from members of his own party," she said.
Even some Democrats recognize Obama's habit of visiting the coast while declining invitations in valley cities like Fresno.
Evans of the Fresno County Democratic Central Committee admits that "(there are) significant issues in California's Central Valley, many of which need to be addressed at the federal level. A visit from President Obama to the area would speak volumes toward the administration's understanding of and attention to our concerns."
Obama doesn't need to come to California to campaign, having won by 3.3 million votes in 2008. The latest California polls give him as much as a 30 percent lead over Romney, who was in the state in March for two fundraising stops and a campaign event in San Diego. He's scheduled to attend a fundraiser at the home of Bakersfield's Barbara Grimm-Marshall May 30.
Romney has collected a total of $10 million in California, according to the FEC.
"Simply, (California) is where the money is," said Daniel Newman, co-founder and president of MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks money in politics.
Obama typically spends his travel time visiting swing states where he schedules policy events more often than fundraisers.
In Ohio, a state Obama won only by 259,000 votes in 2008, just 15 percent of his events were fundraisers. After 21 visits, he has raised only $1.8 million, less than a tenth of what he's raised in California.
In Florida, a state he won in 2008 by only 236,000 votes, more than half of his 43 events had no fundraising component.
Obama has made several trips to California for policy reasons alone. That was the case when he visited Solyndra, a solar plant manufacturer in Fremont that went bankrupt a year after the visit. Last November he attended a basketball game and spoke with troops on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson off the San Diego coast en route to an APEC meeting in Hawaii.
California not only donates the most money, it is also home to Obama's biggest money bundlers, who gather large donations for the candidate. Sixteen of his bundlers come from California as compared to 13 from New York, according to the FEC.
California stands out with its wealthy donors and numerous expensive events.
Katzenberg, the DreamWorks Animation CEO, has raised $2 million and the actress Eva Longoria raised $74,000, according to the FEC. The dinner on Clooney's basketball court included Barbra Streisand, Salma Hayek, Jack Black and Billy Crystal.
Not all of Obama's donors are this wealthy. The bulk of his money -- 98 percent -- comes from donations of $250 or less, according to the president's campaign manager Jim Messina.
But that's not who Obama will be visiting this week. The price tag for Wednesday's Atherton dinner at the home of philanthropist Doug Goldman is $38,500 per person. It is the same price for Thursday's gathering at the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto.
The cheapest tickets at the Fox Theater in Redwood City cost only $250. But those who want to get a picture with the president will have to spend $7,500.
The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California Washington Center and the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. Email the California News Service at firstname.lastname@example.org.