More than 600 people collectively paid $2.5 million last night to gather among ice sculptures of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty with Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) -- the man they think might be the next president of the United States.
A year ago, Warner celebrated his 50th birthday at the same Ritz-Carlton hotel in Tysons Corner with a record-breaking, 1,000-person soiree that netted $2 million for his statewide political operation.
Last night, he outdid himself, once again breaking the one-day record for fundraising in Virginia, according to his political advisers. This year, President Bush raised $2.1 million at a McLean fundraiser for Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore.
The largess of Warner's wealthy friends is headed out of state as part of his nascent, if not yet acknowledged, campaign for the presidency in 2008.
"I need your help, your ideas, your energy, your resources," Warner told the crowd. "Together, we can shake things up. Together, we can find leaders who see a little farther down the road. This nation can, and must, do better. If we can do it in Virginia, we can do it in America."
The "Taste of America Gala Celebration" featured food from parts of the country rich with culture and electoral votes: California rolls from the Golden State, fajitas from the Southwest, cheesecake from New York, clam chowder from New England and desserts from the South, including peach cobbler and New Orleans beignets.
According to the invitation, founding members of Warner's national political action committee -- called Forward Together -- each paid $5,000 to attend. Others paid $1,000 for the chance to rub elbows with Warner and his guests.
The idea, said Mary K. "Mame" Reiley, director of the PAC, is to fuel Warner's efforts to speak out on national issues after he hands the governorship to Timothy M. Kaine (D) on Jan. 14.
"This is a rollout for his new political adventure," Reiley said. "This will allow him to travel nationally and help other candidates."
Reiley said last night's fundraiser was supposed to include a private, intimate reception with Warner and the people who chose to become founding members by paying $5,000, the maximum allowed under federal law. But she said organizers canceled the smaller reception after the vast majority of guests paid the maximum.
Even with his success yesterday, Warner is playing a game of financial catch-up with some of the other presumed candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) are raising millions of dollars with their Senate reelection committees. Unused money in those accounts can be used to run for president.
But any money Warner raises for Forward Together, which is considered a leadership committee, cannot directly be used to run for national office. Eventually, Warner will have to create an exploratory committee to raise money specifically for a presidential campaign.
"He needs to be raising hard money as soon as he can" said Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, a political newsletter. "There's only so much that the leadership PAC can do."
He will also face barbs from Republicans in Virginia, who bristle at the thought of Warner taking his brand of politics nationwide. Shawn Smith, executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, said yesterday that, "The American people want a leader with unwavering character and leadership -- not a Democrat with shallow campaign rhetoric and promises made just to get elected."
But supporters at the Ritz-Carlton said they believe Warner would have a unique ability to bridge the partisan divide the way he often did in Virginia.
"Mark has that. He's made Virginia work in a bipartisan way," said former Louisiana senator John Breaux, who attended the event.
"People are getting very tired of the bickering and fighting that goes on in Washington every day."
About 50 top-dollar donors who arrived early in the afternoon were treated to a private briefing by Warner's pollster, direct-mail leader and political advisers.
The two-hour meeting at the hotel was similar to one Warner held last month at the Chart House restaurant in Alexandria.
The evening festivities started with speeches by former lieutenant governor Donald S. Beyer Jr. and Kaine, who called Warner "a powerful optimist. Not one person has made one penny betting against Mark Warner."
Kaine introduced a slick video of Warner's accomplishments before introducing the outgoing governor.
The five-minute video touted Warner's successes in Virginia and featured Virginians praising his stewardship.
"Wow," Warner said upon taking the stage.
He then introduced his wife, Lisa Collis, as "the person who nudged me while we were watching the video and said, 'Don't let this go to your head.' "