PARK CITY, Utah — The Republican Party is trying hard to move on from Mitt Romney. His donors are another story.
Three potential presidential candidates grasped at the Republican Party’s financial torch Friday by auditioning before an audience of Romney’s most influential fundraisers and GOP officials. After huddling with the former nominee in a dark lodge Thursday night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul woke up early to hobnob with donors and deliver their pitches at Romney’s Experts and Enthusiasts conference.
All three Republicans had unique challenges in charming the moneyed and influential crowd packed into a ballroom here.
Christie, for one, had upset many of the donors loyal to Romney with his effusive praise of President Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy in the closing days of the 2012 presidential race. Anthony Scaramucci, a New York investor and vocal Romney supporter, said that Romney was a “very gracious” person for inviting him at all. The speech, he said, would “give people a chance to have a firsthand rather than a hearsay introduction to Chris Christie.”
In his address to the donors — which, like everything else in the exclusive alpine lodge, was kept behind closed doors — Christie repeatedly said that he wanted to “thank Mitt and Ann” for having him, according to attendees. He talked about how he had turned New Jersey around by telling hard truths. (“I’ve had gasps — gasps! — in my press conferences.”)
But he also stressed working with Democrats when possible. “I’m not Pollyannaish, believe me,” he said at one point, adding that “some of these fights we have, you’ve got to have but” that at other times, it was better to work together. He said that friendships were the key to getting things done, but emphasized that when someone broke that trust, “stick it to them,” according to Jimmy Shea, an Olympic gold medalist in the crowd.
The speech went over well, receiving several rounds of applause.
“Politics is politics,” said John Rakolta, a close friend of Romney’s and a donor, when asked about the hard feelings many Romney backers had toward Christie. “He was great. I’m a big fan.”
Christie’s speech was followed by the traveling debt-talk roadshow of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles (“I’m not even sure what this is,” Simpson said as he entered the lodge), and Ryan spoke next. Familiar to many of the people here, and the politician to whom Romney has described himself as “partial,” Ryan’s advantage is also his drawback. The congressman carries the tarnish of a losing campaign in which the Romney-Ryan ticket was unable to carry his home state of Wisconsin. In the months since the loss, he has assumed less of a leadership role in Congress.
Ryan spent the morning shooting skeet with donors and received many handshakes as he walked into the lodge. In his speech, he recounted the vice presidential selection process and called Romney a “true mentor.”
Paul’s challenge was more ideological than emotional. The son of former congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian standard-bearer, and an early adopter and champion of the tea party movement, he has held positions that many people in the establishment crowd consider extreme. Scaramucci said that he thought the donors “could have a softening-agent effect on the personality” of the senator and suggested that interactions could act on the Kentucky senator like “dishwashing detergent.”
Paul may have spent the earlier years of his career in rowdy anti-Republican-establishment rallies with libertarian-themed ska bands, but now he is a senator, aggressively courting constituencies that the Republican Party has long ignored. (He recently spoke at Howard University.) After a morning of wearing plaid shorts and hitting golf balls with donors, he changed into a jacket and tie and sat with Scaramucci for a private meeting on a sunny veranda overlooking the ski slopes.
“We all have a mixture of opinions; we don’t agree on every issue,” he said on his way into the ballroom, adding that he was here to “talk to other Republicans about how we grow the Republican Party.”
Paul talked about the future of the party, and after paying lip service to the deficit issues upon which most in the room agreed, he argued that emphasizing civil liberties was a way to reach out to Hispanic and African American voters, according to one attendee.
According to W. Craig Zwick, a close Romney friend and father of Romney’s former finance chair, Paul made a strong impression. He told the crowd that the GOP “must be a party of passion,” Zwick said, and that “we’ve got to put a face on big government as we make an effort to register new voters.”