SAN FRANCISCO — Except for a booth and a few T-shirts, President Barack Obama was hardly represented when the California Democratic Party met for its annual convention this past weekend.
He may not have noticed.
Except when Obama comes to raise money – the Democratic president is here again this week on a fundraising swing – hardly anyone in California expects to see him much this year.
"You can't expect him to do whistle-stops in California and ignore the states that will make him president," state Democratic Party Chairman John Burton said. "If everybody here went to sleep, he will carry California."
Burton is almost certainly right. California is so heavily Democratic no Republican is likely to campaign seriously against Obama in the general election. But enthusiasm for Obama has waned in the Golden State since he was elected in 2008.
According to a December Field Poll, fewer than half of California voters – 48 percent – approve of the job Obama is doing. Although his approval rating is better in California than elsewhere, the mark represents a 17-point decline from March 2009, shortly after Obama took office.
Four years ago, California Democrats went for Hillary Clinton in the primary election, then rallied for Obama, exporting volunteers and money to competitive states.
This year, they may have other priorities: The theme of the state party's convention, "Battleground California," suggested an emphasis on picking up competitive seats in the House of Representatives. It was in that context – not Obama's re-election – that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called the 2012 election "the most important election of our generation."
Obama is leading by a comfortable margin in hypothetical matchups with the two Republican frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, according to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday. Yet even among his supporters, Obama appears to recognize a measure of dissatisfaction.
In a fundraising appeal online last week, his campaign released a video featuring scenes from a speech Obama made five years ago announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Ill. He recalled the excitement of that campaign in a series of fundraisers in Southern California and San Francisco on Wednesday and Thursday.
"Although I'm a little grayer now than I was, a little dinged up, and some of the newness and excitement that possessed us in 2008 naturally will have dissipated," Obama said at a fundraiser in Corona Del Mar, "that sense of urgency and determination, and the values that are at stake, are no less today than they were back in 2008."
Obama defended his health care overhaul and his economic and energy policies. But he acknowledged that Americans have been slogging for years through a rough economy, and he said "it's understandable that some of them may feel discouraged and feel cynical, and say, 'You know what? Nothing changes.' "
He urged supporters to prepare for "one more fight," knock on doors, make telephone calls and "tweet" on his behalf.
As his motorcade arrived in Orange County on Thursday, people along the road held anti-Obama signs, among them, "Evict Obummer." Supporters inside chanted "Four more years!"
They might have chanted for Obama at the state party's convention in San Diego, too, were it nearer the general election this fall, Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said.
"The reality is, OK, how do we get people jazzed up and turned out?" he said. "Ultimately, as we turn the corner from the primary to the general election, there will be a lot of effort to energize people."
For now, California Democrats have House races to focus on – and TV.
"I think that good Democrats are watching the Republican candidates self-destruct with glee, and I think that's what's consuming most of the conversations," said Aaron Peskin, chairman of the San Francisco Democratic Party.
In reliably Democratic San Francisco, feelings about Obama have improved in recent months, Peskin said, as the president became more confrontational with Republicans, including rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposal to transport Canadian oil to the United States.
"I think the president has realized that his policies of appeasing the Republicans and being reasonable were not beneficial to his policy goals, and he has really now started coming out swinging on fundamental Democratic bread-and-butter issues," Peskin said. "I think that people are relieved and delighted."
As Obama traveled from San Francisco International Airport to the first of three fundraisers in the city on Thursday afternoon, customers at a restaurant in Chinatown rushed the president when he made an unannounced stop for takeout.
Some 2,500 people heard Obama speak at a reception late Thursday at the Nob Hill Masonic Center.
He drew huge cheers when he discussed the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the end of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The audience was lively; people occasionally called out that they loved him. But at least two women were removed by security, one protesting oil drilling and the other the United States' military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama laughed it off.
"Folks are not shy about sharing their ideas in San Francisco" he said. "It's fun."
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