California, usually forlornly on the sidelines during presidential contests, saw a brief glimpse of a potential general-election kerfuffle Wednesday. Mitt Romney came to Los Angeles and slammed President Obama's handling of the economy; not coincidentally, Obama made his case in an interview with a Los Angeles television station, a rare shift from his focus on the states likely to matter most next year.
Romney, a Republican candidate and former Massachusetts governor, took a break from fundraising to appear before empty storefronts at a desiccated North Hollywood mall where he argued that Obama had failed to fully focus on the economy, instead pushing a liberal agenda that made the recession worse.
"Sadly, as we look around us at this development, we see a development that is no longer going to be developed," Romney said. "There was a plan to put a $600-million shopping mall here, but the Valley Plaza development plan has been scrapped in part because of the challenges in the economy."
Yet as Democrats were happy to point out, the mall was in decline well before Obama took office. One of the first outdoor shopping malls in the nation — then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy delivered a speech in its parking lot in 1960 — it suffered structural damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. Many of the businesses closed their doors during the George W. Bush administration.
Romney acknowledged that the shopping center's decline could not be fully blamed on Obama, but he argued that a massive revitalization plan was shelved because of the president's handling of the economy.
"Obviously, the challenges here are not all the result of the current administration. A lot of economic woes you are seeing around you and around the country are the result of errors made over a long period of time, but what's happened in the last couple years has not helped," Romney said. "The president is fond of saying he didn't cause the recession, he inherited the recession — and that's true. But he made it worse."
City Councilman Paul Krekorian said Romney was misleading voters. The company that owns much of the property — led by a Romney donor — is working with Krekorian and city officials to create a new development proposal for the mall. A preliminary proposal is expected soon. The company, iStar, was not contacted by the campaign about the event.
"In the San Fernando Valley, we make a lot of movies and we make a lot of television shows," Krekorian said. But "we know the difference between a movie set and real life. Today, Gov. Romney used my neighborhood as a movie set, and I'm a little resentful of that."
When pressed by reporters, Romney said, "I'm sure there's going to be something done here, and if I'm president there will be something done in places across the country to put people back to work."
Obama, meanwhile, argued in an interview on KABC-TV that he was actively engaged in creating more jobs.
"We've got more to do. First thing we have to do is get our fiscal house in order, and we should be able to do that in the next several weeks," Obama said, referring to negotiations over raising the nation's debt ceiling.
"The next step is to start looking at bolder plans, like infrastructure, for example — putting people to work rebuilding not just our roads and bridges but also broadband lines, high-speed rail, putting all those construction workers that used to be in housing to work rebuilding California and rebuilding America," he said. "That can have huge ripple effects.
"And then the last thing we have to do is we have to make sure that we're investing in research and development and training our workers for the jobs of the future, thinking about clean-energy jobs, making sure the solar panels and the wind turbines and electric cars are built here in the United States, built in California. All that can help in terms of moving us forward."
Obama's remarks represented a departure from his routine of conducting interviews with television reporters from swing states. In recent months, his targets have included Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Presidential candidates of both parties typically ignore California during general elections, and pay attention at this time of the electoral cycle for one reason — the vast trove of wealthy donors who live here.
Focused on fundraising here Wednesday were Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is expected to announce within weeks whether he's running for president, was also conducting private meetings in the state.
In the interview, Obama took up a state issue: budgetary whacks at education.
Noting that school funding had been "drained away," he said: "What I encourage states and local officials to think about is what are the things you can't do without, but make sure you're still investing in those things that are going to help us win the future."