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Keynoter or Not, Palin Steals Spotlight at GOP Fundraiser

This much is clear: Palin was invited to be the keynote speaker at the dinner. What happened next, however, is a matter of hot dispute. Party officials say she accepted and reneged. Palin loyalists say she was merely mulling the offer. Either way, the party moved on and invited Gingrich to be the substitute keynoter.

In recent days, Palin was reinvited to the event, but that invitation was rescinded over concerns that the darling of the conservative base would steal the spotlight from Gingrich. Palin, reportedly angered that the party establishment was slighting her again, let it be known that she might not come to the event at all -- leading to a day of recriminations in the blogosphere before a settlement was reached.

Finally, a compromise of sorts was reached: Palin would attend the event, and be given a seat of honor, but would not have a speaking role.

Instead, she would be speaking to a much bigger audience, having taped an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity (viewership in excess of 3 million). It was scheduled to air at 9 p.m. -- exactly the moment Gingrich was scheduled to begin his keynote address.

Excerpts of the speech were leaked to the Drudge Report during the day, including her complaint about Obama's spending and his proposed government ownership of General Motors. "Kind of a 'We told ya so,' " the governor said.

At the convention center, reporters scanning the ballroom for a Palin sighting didn't have to look hard. After the dinner guests had taken their place at the 200 tables, Palin, wearing black, took an unannounced stroll across the stage, accompanied by Gingrch and their spouses. As a few in the crowd noticed the quartet's trip down the runway, a wave of applause and a few whistles spread across the immense hall.

The master of ceremonies, actor Jon Voight, tried to fire up the minority party with the standard bromides directed at the majority: "We are becoming a weak nation. . . . Free the nation from this Obama oppression. . . . Bring an end to this false prophet Obama."

The applause was polite but didn't entirely replace the sound of cutlery on china.

The focus, meanwhile, was on a table in the first row, where a certain governor was holding court. During dinner, all the television cameras trained their lenses on Palin, her image grainy across the room. Dozens of well-wishers clustered around her table in the first row, for a chance to have a photo taken with her.

Several speakers ignored the elephant in the room, but when Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, head of the Senate Republicans' election effort, rose to speak, he mentioned Palin. "Thank you for being here with us tonight," he began. The ovation in the hall drowned out the next words.

Gingrich, a skilled politician, knew what to do. "I also want to thank Governor Palin and Todd for coming tonight and being part of this," he said. Recalling the two couples' joint walk at the start of the dinner, he said they were greeted coming off the stage by Sen. John McCain, the GOP's presidential candidate last fall. "I felt, looking at John McCain and Sarah Palin, this country would have been amazingly better off had they been in the White House," he said.

It was the easiest applause line of the night.

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