With new polls showing the damage accumulating from last week's debate, President Obama took refuge in California Monday: He revved up supporters at a San Francisco rally after making a significant gesture in the Central Valley to the Latino voters he needs to win re-election.
While placing a single red rose on Cesar Chavez's grave near Bakersfield, Obama announced a new national monument to the civil rights and United Farm Workers leader whose motto "Si se puede" -- or "Yes we can" -- was the unifying slogan of Obama's first campaign.
"Cesar worked for 25 years without a major victory, but he never gave up," Obama told gatherers -- including Chavez' widow, Helen, and son, Paul -- at the property in Keene known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, which served as the UFW's national headquarters and the iconic leader's home. "Our world is a better place because Cesar Chavez chose to change it."
Afterward, he flew to the Bay Area for fundraisers and a big concert-rally at San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. . He planned to stay in San Francisco overnight before departing Tuesday morning for the crucial battleground state of Ohio.
The president's announcement of the Chavez monument comes at a vital time in his re-election campaign, with his edge over Republican nominee Mitt Romney eroding after what many believed to be a lackluster performance in the candidates' first debate last Wednesday. Real Clear Politics' average of seven
After entering the San Francisco rally to cheering applause and a blinding wall of camera flashes, Obama quickly addressed the debate.
"What was being presented (by Romney) was not leadership, it was salesmanship." he said, noting that the centerpiece of Romney's plan is a $5 trillion tax cut geared toward the wealthy.
"Suddenly a guy pretending to be Mitt Romney stood on a stage next to me a few days ago in Denver and pretended that such a tax cut isn't his plan..." Obama said. "You didn't know this but for all you moms and kids out there you should have confidence that finally, someone is cracking down on Big Bird. Elmo has been seen in a white Suburban, he's headed for the border.... Gov. Romney's plan is to let Wall Street run wild again, but he's going to bring the hammer down on Sesame Street."
The latest poll, conducted Thursday through Sunday by Pew Research, shows Obama trailing Romney by four points among likely voters -- a huge swing from mid-September, when he led Romney in the same poll by eight points. The new Pew poll found Romney has made sizable gains over the past month among women voters, white non-Hispanics and those younger than 50.
"It's a surge, and it definitely is more than I thought it would be," said Samuel Popkin, a presidential campaign and polling expert at UC San Diego. "Romney is very well set up for the next debate, because if Obama comes out saying 'Liar, liar liar,' then he looks desperate and not like he has a plan."
But both Popkin and UC Berkeley political science professor Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy, said Obama's next debate performance might be helped by last week's news that the nation's unemployment rate has dropped to 7.8 percent.
Citing that new figure, Obama said, "Manufacturers are coming back to America, home values are on the rise, but we are not there yet, we are not where we need to be yet.
"We have come too far to turn back now. The last thing we can afford now, California, is four years of the very same policies that led us into the mess in the first place."
Latinos are considered a vital voting bloc in several states -- including Nevada, Colorado and Florida -- that could decide whether Obama gets four more years.
Obama's use of the UFW's motto underscores the populist parallels he's tried to draw between his candidacies and Latinos' struggles for labor, civil and immigration rights. Service Employees International Union Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, who worked with Chavez as a UFW board member from 1973 to 1978, said Obama's announcement of the Chavez monument "is a recognition of the fact that we are becoming a critical part of the electorate."
Medina on Monday was helping to launch a weeklong drive with the Mi Familia Vota Education Fund to register Latino voters, with events from Stockton to Los Angeles. The Chavez event will resonate with many of those potential voters, he said.
"To court the support of this demographic, you need to be aware of the history and show respect to this community," Medina said. "The president is doing that, and I hope it leads to many, many more public officials understanding that the way to win our support and our hearts and our votes is through recognition and respect rather than attacks and ignoring us."
The president had two exclusive fundraisers and one bigger event scheduled Monday afternoon and evening in San Francisco. The first was closed to the media; the second, a $20,000-per-person dinner with food prepared by celebrity chefs Alice Waters and Tyler Florence, was held at¿ the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium before the big rally and concert featuring musicians Michael Franti and John Legend.
At the fundraising dinner in the auditorium, the president noted that only 29 days remained in his campaign and urged supporters to be "almost obsessive" over the next month by talking to family and friends in battleground states.
"I am very competitive. And I very much intend to win this election," he said.
He briefly referenced the polls as he recalled a waiter who recently thanked him for the health care law that helped his ill mother get insurance and pay for her medicine.
"It reminds me that what we do is not sport, it's not simply about who's up and who's down in the polls," Obama said. "Ultimately, it's about that young man and his mom ... and the belief that in this great country of ours, we're going to make sure that every single person is treated with dignity and with respect. That's why we do this. That's what these events are about."
At the rally later, Obama told the crowd that "Change takes time. We always said it would take more than one term or even one president. We said it would take more than one party. And by the way, no, it doesn't just take me. That is not the deal. The deal is, it takes all of us," as he finished speaking to thunderous applause and Bruce Springsteen's "We Take Care of Our Own."
Staff writer Joshua Melvin and White House media pool reports contributed to this report. Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.