Keynoter or Not, Palin Steals Spotlight at GOP Fundraiser

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

As the Republican faithful filed in for cocktails at last night's fundraiser at the Washington Convention Center, a musical group called the Right On Band was entertaining them with a soul tune:

Rock the boat, don't rock the boat baby

Rock the boat, don't tip the boat over

It seems that even the band had heard about Sarah Palin's appearance at the dinner.

First the Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee was invited to be the keynote speaker at the party's annual congressional fundraising dinner.

Then she was not the keynoter, replaced by former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Then she was invited to speak, again. Then that invitation was rescinded.

Then she let word slip out that she was unhappy about the whole state of events and was thinking of not attending at all.

Then -- after much public bickering between Palin loyalists and party officials -- she finally agreed to come, speaking slot or no.

In that sense, the Right On Band was spot-on with its choice of songs for the Republican lawmakers and donors. Palin's relationship with her party represents nothing so much as a lovers' quarrel, and the mostly Motown musical selection -- "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "My Girl," "Baby I Need Your Lovin' " -- hit all the right notes: passion, jealousy, love and guilt. In a burst of optimism, organizers allowed two knives to be placed at each of the 2,000 place settings -- one, apparently, to stick in the food and one to use on fellow Republicans.

Receipts from the dinner, the biggest fundraising event of the year for House and Senate Republicans, totaled $14.5 million, down slightly from recent years. The wine on the table, modest bottles of Woodbridge, fit the austerity of the times. Gone were the metal detectors of recent years. Instead, little-known Republican congressional leaders with names such as Eric Cantor and Jon Kyl were escorted in by their security details. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana entered the room, unescorted, with a mostly empty glass of wine.

But the buzz last night was less about the dollar take than about who would be appearing on the dais. In past years, President George W. Bush had been the dinner's keynoter. Whoever the party leaders selected for last night's keynote could legitimately claim a modicum of heir transparency. Hence the intrigue over the two would-be keynote speakers, Gingrich and Palin, each with an eye on a 2012 presidential run.

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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