Funny people, politicians. They'll take a third place finish in a place like, say, Iowa and turn it into a whoop-and-holler victory party full of lobbyists and camera crews. Lots of Scotch, too. And charge you $125 to be there.
Which gives you the basic scenario of last night's fund-raiser for Republican presidential candidate Howard Baker at the Polo Club. As for more intricate detail, well, there were seminude statues draped with "Baker 80" banners, a folksy campaign song played in between the disco music, bowls of Cheezits strewn here and there, and a candidate who, less than 24 hours after Iowa's precinct caucuses, seemed relieved to have survived.
"We're alive," rejoiced Baker, referring to a sickly campaign that might have turned fatal but for his Iowa finish behind George Bush and Ronald Reagan. "We got off to a slow start, but it's a whole new ball game."
Doug Bailey, one of Baker's political media experts, put it straight: "The Baker campaign was close to out of it."
No longer, it seems. Or so it seemed last night to 300 fans of the Senate minority leader from Tennessee. "I give you the next president of the United States -- Howard Baker!" cried Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the candidate's campaign chairman.
An objective group it was not.
Steve Martindale, professional party-goer and lawyer, was there. He made an appearance at a $1,000-a-head Hickory Hill fund-raiser for Ted Kennedy in December, and last night was very much in evidence at the Polo Club. Kept real close to the candidate, matter of fact, while the television lights were on.
"I wanted to help," explained Martindale about his Hickory Hill visit, "but you know, I'm basically a Republican." And off he melted, into the crowd.
From other presidential campaigns, including rapidly aborted presidential campaigns, came Paul Arneson. He's the lawyer who for a few fleeting months managed the short-lived presidential candidacy of Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.)
Anyway, last night Arneson stood at the stairs leading into the Polo Club, quietly surveying all those people drinking expensive liquor and eating finger cheeses. Was he thinking, perhaps, about the frank-and-beans fund-raiser Pressler once had? Or was he thinking, maybe, about a job with the Baker folks?
"Oh, God no," he replied. "No thank you."
To the right of Arneson was a television screen which showed a Baker campaign ad broadcast extensively in Iowa last week. In it, using actual footage from a speech the candidate made at the University of Iowa, Baker takes on a student who accuses him of being unconcerned about Iranians.
Baker points an accusing finger at the student and probably says something terribly scathing and patriotic. Only problem was, somebody had turned the sound off. Unless you could lip-read, you had to think up the scathing words for yourself.
Most of the party was composed of lawyers. Then there was Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.) who says he's uncommitted so far; former senator Robert Taft, Baker's Ohio chairman; and Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), a strong Baker backer.
And as always, you could find Tommy Curtis darting through the crowd. He co-owns the place and is big on political theories. Like this one:
"This is a staff hangout," he said, "Baker, Bush, Carter-Mondale -- the place where they do strategy over Chivas. And you know, they're all not so sure. I keep listening to these bull sessions and the name I hear more and more is -- Ford."