WASHINGTON – President Obama and Mitt Romney compete for votes. They try to outdo one another in fund-raising, in creating the best television ad, in delivering the most pointed attack in a debate.
Tonight, they competed for laughs.
Appearing back-to-back at a gala in New York that raises money for charity, the candidates alternated between self-depreciating humor and edgy roast material.
“It’s nice to finally relax and to wear what Ann and I wear around the house,” Romney said, wearing white tie and tails. Then he noted,“I was actually hoping the president would bring Joe Biden along this evening. Because he’ll laugh at anything.”
Romney said one of the secrets to his strong debate performance was, “Refrain from alcohol for 65 years before the debate.” Referencing his own comments about cutting federal subsidies to Sesame Street, Romney said, “The president’s remarks tonight are brought to you by the letter O and the number 16 trillion.”
“Of course we’re down to the final months of the president’s term,” Romney added. “As President Obama surveys the Waldorf banquet room, with everyone in white tie and finery, you have to wonder what he’s thinking: ‘So little time. So much to redistribute.’”
Romney also chided the press, asking in jest, “What other safeguard do we have, besides the press?”
“Some in the media have a certain way of looking at things,” Romney said. “When suddenly I pulled ahead in some of the major polls, what was the headline? Polls show Obama leading from behind. And I’ve already seen early reports from tonight’s dinner. Headline: Obama embraced by Catholics, Romney dines with rich people.”
When Obama took the podium, he began with, “Everyone please take your seats. Otherwise Clint Eastwood will yell at them.”
“Earlier today I went shopping at some stores in Midtown,” he added. “I understand Governor Romney went shopping for some stores in Midtown.”
Obama also had several moments of self-depreciating humor, noting at one point one thing he and Romney share is unusual names.
“Actually, Mitt is his middle name,” he said. “I wish I could use my middle name.”
Noting his lackluster first debate against Romney, Obama said, “I had a lot more energy in our second debate. I felt really well rested after the nice long nap I had in the first debate.”
Obama recalled being criticized in 2008 for being a celebrity who was popular abroad. “Good to see Governor Romney has avoided that problem,” he said. Noting that the upcoming debate would be on foreign policy, he said, “Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden.”
Romney and Obama both closed by turning from their light-hearted jabs to a moment of graciousness.
“I admire him very much as a family man and a loving father, and those are two titles that will always matter more than any political ones,” Obama said.
“Don’t tell anybody I said this,” Romney said. “But our 44th president has many gifts and a wonderful family that would make anybody proud.”
The white-tie dinner, held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, raised some $5 million to benefit the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation, which helps sick and poor people in New York. Smith was a Democratic governor of New York and the first Roman Catholic presidential nominee.
After a dinner of poached lobster tail, roast rack of panko and herb-custed lamb, and a chocolate dessert, the guests were treated to a string of one-liners, starting when master of ceremonies Al Smith IV took the stage. “You both look dashing in tails,” he told Romney and Obama. “Or, as you call it governor, business casual.”
Noting Romney’s generosity to his church, he said, “I must confess. We didn’t invite him here to speak. We invited him here to convert.” To Obama, Smith remarked, “It’s never good when your opponent has produced more sons than you’ve produced jobs.”
Several critics had pleaded with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan to revoke the invitation to President Obama, citing differences the president has with the Catholic Church over positions on contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. The archdiocese in the past had not invited John Kerry and Bill Clinton because of their support for abortion rights.
“If I only sat down with people who agreed with me, and I with them, or with those who were saints, I’d be taking all my meals alone,” Dolan, who delivered the invocation at both Democratic and Republican conventions, wrote in a blog post in response.
The gala is both an important stop for presidential candidates and one filled with pratfalls. They are supposed to take a light touch, using humor in the final days of a heated campaign. It came 48 hours after Obama and Romney engaged in a debate marked by its intensity and vitriol.
Other guests at the dinner included MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Fox News president Roger Ailes, and several top New York politicians – Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Senator Chuck Schumer.
There have been six sets of presidential candidates who have faced off at the dinner, starting with John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. President Obama and Senator John McCain both appeared in 2008.