Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) acknowledges the audience at the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner (Tom Williams for WPCF)

They really ought to warn aspiring politicians about the Washington joke circuit.

“As someone who makes speeches for a living, why am I so stressed about tonight?” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp asked at the Washington Press Club Foundation’s annual congressional dinner Wednesday night. “The truth is, like almost every politician you know, I’m not very funny.”

But she sounded fun — and frankly, that’s as much as you can ask for at the insidery political-media schmoozefests that fill hotel ballrooms this time of year.

The new senator from North Dakota charmed the crowd at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel with a classic tactic: Self-deprecation.

“You’re asking yourself, ‘How did this middle-aged, red-headed Democrat win a United States Senate seat in a red state that the president lost by 21 points?’” said Heitkamp, who squeaked into office by less than one percent of the vote. “To you, I’m like a unicorn. You guys don’t think I exist. You just wanted to tell your family that you saw me in person and I am the last of my species.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) at the dinner. (Tom Williams for WPCF)

Ditto for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a third-term congressman from Utah who spent last year stumping for Mitt Romney. Not great jokes, but saved by an exuberant delivery.

“As you know, Republicans are trying to turn over a new leaf,” Chaffetz said with a good-sport grin. “We really want to highlight the diversity of our party. . .So they sent me, a white, male, conservative, Mormon from Utah to speak to you tonight. It’s actually the only base we have at this point.” With a name like Chaffetz, he’s “close enough to be a Hispanic,” he joked.

Some unintentional humor: The dinner program erroneously listed him as a “congressman from New Mexico.” When asked about it later, Chaffetz laughed it off.

Guess he’s not quite as famous as he thought. “I actually was under the impression that maybe I was invited because I was an ‘up-and-coming’ Republican,” he said. “It turns out they were just looking for a way to save money on alcohol: ‘Invite the Mormon.’” He paused and looked around the ballroom. “The senator from Idaho isn’t here, is he?”

Oooooh! The jab at Mike Crapo’s DUI arrest got knowing laughs and groans. Just a joke, people.

Last year: Rep. Billy Long: Freshman wows with big jokes at Washington Press Club Foundation dinner, 2/9/12

WPCF dinner 2011: Rep. Chris Lee scandal is the buzz, 2/10/11

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