By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009 10:48 PM
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was warmly welcomed Monday night to a major GOP fundraiser dinner, a development that was surprising only because her appearance came after a bizarre, weeks-long saga that had party leaders questioning whether she would show up.
Palin had originally been announced as the keynote speaker for the fundraiser, a dinner benefiting the Republican congressional campaign committees at the Washington Convention Center. But her office then said that she had never confirmed her attendance. Palin's office asked last week if she would speak at the dinner, and party leaders told her she could. Later, though, they rescinded the speaking invitation in deference to the man who had accepted the keynote slot in her place, former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Without a speaking slot, Palin declined to commit to appearing until hours before the event. But after assurances she would be publicly introduced at the event, the former vice presidential nominee and her husband strode across the stage with Gingrich and his wife as the event started, getting applause from the crowd of more than 2,000 Republicans.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), chairman of the National Senatorial Campaign Committee, praised Palin for her "leadership." The brief mention of the Alaska governor drew more applause from the crowd. Palin herself did not speak at the event.
Despite the controversy, Republicans raised more than $14 million at the event for the committees that help elect House and Senate GOP candidates. The dinner is annually one of the largest party fundraisers of the year.
Gingrich's keynote slot marked the latest step in the continuing reemergence of a man who was at the center of the party's historic takeover of Congress in 1994. He resigned from both the speakership and the House four years later, after Republicans had lost seats and Gingrich's backing had faded among House Republicans.
Away from Congress, Gingrich has tried to reshape his image from a partisan congressional leader to an influential public voice on issues such as health care and energy. He now constantly sends his former GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill e-mail missives about his ideas, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dubbed him Monday night "one of the best idea men we've ever had."
Referring to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and Palin, the GOP's presidential ticket in 2008, Gingrich said, "This country would have been majorly better off had they been in the White House."
Gingrich remains a controversial figure; Cornyn and others in the party distanced themselves from Gingrich's charge that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is "racist." Gingrich backtracked from the claim last week, but he continued his sharp criticism of President Obama yesterday.
The controversy over Palin's appearance was the latest political problem for the governor, who has feuded with members of her own party in the Alaska legislature since she returned there following the election. Her back-and-forth about Monday's dinner annoyed party strategists in Washington. Nevertheless, she remains popular among party activists who cheered McCain's selection of her last year as his running mate.
Palin has not yet said if she will run for reelection next year in Alaska or for the White House in 2012.