With Labor Day marking the traditional start of the campaign season, Democrats convene this week in Charlotte, N.C., aiming to keep the White House and retake Congress -- and for the first time in 20 years, California could be key to the strategy.

The Golden State may be a sure win for President Barack Obama, but it's also a make-or-break battleground for Democrats' long-shot quest to retake the House of Representatives and perhaps reinstall San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.

Twelve California House districts -- mostly in Central and Southern California -- are considered competitive or potential battlegrounds, according to the closely watched Cook Political Report.

So after a summer in which most casual voters have only loosely focused on the start of Obama vs. Romney, many voters will now start tuning in to find that redistricting has made their House vote a valuable commodity. In San Diego, the Inland Empire and even Antioch, voters should brace for a blitzkrieg of television advertising, phone calls, direct mail and door knocking as candidates backed by national fundraising vie for every vote.

"Come September, that's when the campaigns begin in earnest," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a University of Southern California senior scholar and political expert. "Now comes the time when you're going to be hit between the ears with all kinds of political media.


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"People will get a little disgusted," she predicted, noting that although people say they dislike negative political ads, those ads still can be devastatingly effective. "No candidate is going to forgo any technique that might get him or her a little bit closer to victory."

Almost a quarter of the state's House seats are considered in play, and that's 13 percent of the races to watch nationwide. Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats to win a House majority, and it's hard to imagine getting there without California, which has earned a reputation for voting to the left of the rest of the nation.

The Bay Area's only hot race is in the 9th Congressional District, where Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, faces Republican Ricky Gill, a recent law school graduate, from Lodi. Nearby in Northern California, Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, is in a tight race against Democrat Ami Bera, an Elk Grove physician, while Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, faces Republican Kim Vann, a Colusa County supervisor from Arbuckle.

The summer began disappointingly for Democrats when their chosen candidate for the 31st District in San Bernardino County, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, failed to make the top two in June's primary. Democrats held a 41 to 37 percent voter registration edge over Republicans, but Aguilar split the primary vote with three other Democrats, and so the district must now choose between two Republicans, state Sen. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, and Rep. Gary Miller, R-Brea.

Even with that district out of play, the parties spent a lot this summer to soften up their foes elsewhere around the state. Their efforts presage the messages and issues that they'll keep pounding away at through November.

The House Majority PAC -- a Democrat-aligned Super PAC -- and the Service Employees International Union in July reserved almost $1.5 million of ad time in Sacramento's television market to attack Lungren while shoring up Garamendi, McNerney and Jose Hernandez in the Modesto-based 10th District. The committee also has bought at least $1.2 million in ad time in San Diego, $1 million in Los Angeles, and $285,000 in Palm Springs; the TV ads, phone calls and online ads have sought to tie Republicans to tax breaks for millionaires, Medicare cuts and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget plan.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Congressional Committee since June has reserved $1.8 million in San Diego ad time, and $4 million in Sacramento to buoy Vann, Lungren, Gill and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto.

It also rolled out mobile billboards and a targeted Facebook ad campaign on Medicare cuts, higher taxes and higher health care costs against Democratic candidates in the Central Valley, Ventura County, Riverside County and Los Angeles and Orange counties.

"The attention that the ... swing districts will get is just off the charts," said UC Davis political-science professor Walter Stone, but the multimedia barrage is crucial to a successful candidacy.

"You have to break through people's attention span, and voters -- especially the voters likely to swing from party to party or candidate to candidate from election to election -- are not going to go out and search for information, so you have to bombard them."

Josh Richman covers politics. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

State house races to watch

3rd Congressional District (likely Democratic)

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove
Colusa County Supervisor Kim Vann, of Arbuckle (R)

7th Congressional District (Republican tossup)

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River
Ami Bera, of Elk Grove (D)

9th Congressional District (leans Democratic)

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton
Law school graduate Ricky Gill, of Lodi (R)

10th Congressional District (leans Republican)

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto
Former astronaut Jose Hernandez, of Stockton

16th Congressional District (likely Democratic)

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno
Attorney Brian Whelan, of Fresno (R)

21st Congressional District (likely Republican)

Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford
Chamber of Commerce President John Hernandez, of Fresno (D)

24th Congressional District (lean Democratic)

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara
Former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, of Santa Maria (R)

26th Congressional District (Republican tossup)

State Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Simi Valley
Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica

36th Congressional District (likely Republican)

Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Desert
Raul Ruiz, of Coachella (D)

41st Congressional District (lean Democratic)

High school teacher Mark Takano, of Riverside (D)
Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, of Riverside (R)

47th Congressional District (likely Democratic)

State Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach
Long Beach Councilman Gary DeLong (R)

52nd Congressional District (Republican tossup)

Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach
Former San Diego City Council President Scott Peters, of La Jolla (D)

Source: Competitive ratings, Cook Political Report