In New York, the Grand Old Par-tay

"Is this supposed to be the big party of the night?" a young GOP gal asked us at Crobar, a New York club where Lynyrd Skynyrd -- a Southern rock band we thought died along with its key members in a plane crash 27 years ago -- was the big-name act. Yep, howling longhairs in the reconstituted Skynyrd, featuring the brother of the band's late lead singer, hoisted the "Free Bird" torch, kicking off the Republican National Convention's party scene just past midnight as Sunday turned to Monday.

"This is surreal," remarked Erik Huey, 37, a lawyer-lobbyist from the D.C. firm Venable LLP, after the show. "It's like a Skynyrd cover band. There's one VanZant and maybe a guitar tech from the 1975 tour." But at least it was more authentic than two other bands slated to entertain Republicans this week: Kiss Nation, a tribute group, and Super Diamond, which pays homage to Neil Diamond.

Officially, the press was barred from attending the highly touted Skynyrd show, but we persevered, because the public has a right to know: Texas Sen. John Cornyn, Florida Rep. Katherine Harris and former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour were there! And they possibly flicked lighters at the encore, but we left early and couldn't see much in the sweating, frat-party mob. At least we got in: Earlier, at "R: The Party," at the Roseland Ballroom, ravening journalists were corralled into holding pens and reduced to shouting inane questions at arriving boldface personages such as Don King, Stephen Baldwin and Barbara and Jenna Bush.

"We can't have press just wandering around in the party," Susan Whitson, the Bush daughters' spokeswoman, told us. Right: Wouldn't be prudent.

Compared with the Democratic bashes in Boston, where the stars glowed brightly and mingled with reporters, the RNC parties are decidedly restrictive and low-wattage. Distancing themselves from Hollywood (where most of the talent is liberal), the planners have erected Potemkin village celebrity events where the media angrily demand access to hot parties featuring . . . pro wrestlers.

"I saw Brad Pitt earlier," offered one line-stander at Roseland. "Tom Cruise just left," said another. Not! Maybe it will get better later in the week. We'll bring you more exclusives as soon as we track down ZZ Top, Wayne Newton and Bo Derek, who are actually supposed to be here.

McCain's Birthday Party Faithful

* Sen. John McCain tended to his political base Sunday night: the entire national media. The maverick Arizona Republican, once (and future?) presidential aspirant and press secretary's dream hosted a hyper-exclusive 68th birthday party for himself at La Goulue on Madison Avenue, leaving no media icon behind. Guests included NBC's Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert, ABC's Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel and George Stephanopoulos, CBS's Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer, CBS News President Andrew Heyward, ABC News chief David Westin, Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, CNN's Judy Woodruff and Jeff Greenfield, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, CNBC's Gloria Borger, PBS's Charlie Rose -- pause here to exhale -- and U.S. News & World Report publisher Mort Zuckerman, Washington Post Chairman Don Graham, New York Times columnists William Safire and David Brooks, author Michael Lewis and USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro. They and others dined on lobster salad, loin of lamb, assorted wines, creme brulee, lemon souffle and French tarts.

Also present at the off-the-record celebration: McCain's 92-year old mother, Roberta; her identical twin sister, Rowena Willis; his wife, Cindy, and daughter Meghan, a student at Columbia whom McCain introduced as "a card-carrying member of the Socialist Party."

One guest, who asked not to be identified, described invitees as "the Journalistic Committee for a Government of National Unity." After singing "Happy Birthday" to McCain, many of the guests -- Russert, Borger and Shapiro, among others -- cabbed to Elaine's, where Zuckerman hosted a mob scene that included Fox's Bill O'Reilly, PBS's John McLaughlin and New York Gov. George Pataki, The Post's Mark Leibovich reports. By 11 p.m. the Second Avenue landmark -- with red carpet outside -- was elbow-to-elbow with martini-sipping guests. Thus commenced Campaign 2008 (we think).

John Prather, Dressed for Egress

* Math professor John Prather of Wheeling, W.Va., who has been conducting his own little experiment on which presidential campaign better tolerates free expression, is at it again. You may recall that Prather was ejected from a Cambridge, Ohio, rally for President Bush a month ago for wearing a Kerry-Edwards T-shirt but ignored when he wore a Bush shirt at a John Kerry rally later the same day. On Sunday Prather went to hear the president speak in Wheeling, and was clad this time in what he described as a "fairly neutral" T-shirt bearing the slogan "D is for democracy" on its front and, on the back, "Q is for the questions all of us should ask. Taking part in a democracy is every citizen's task." (Catchy, in a civics lesson kind of way.)

After passing through two levels of security and ID checks, the professor was taken aside, he says, and asked whether he was a Bush supporter. "No," he candidly replied, and was escorted from the building. Then a man wearing an earpiece -- "who appeared to be with the Secret Service," Prather says -- asked if he had left of his own accord. Prather said no and was promptly readmitted to hear the president's stump speech. "He's a good speaker," Prather said of Bush, but he still plans to vote for Kerry.

Also, he informed us in an e-mail: "I have answered all of the questions that I have about the Bush campaign, and I do not plan to conduct any more experiments of this nature."

With Anne Schroeder