Romney Shines at Washington's 'Oscars'

Although George Clooney and former CIA operative Valerie Plame certainly got their share of “ink” after the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner Saturday evening, people were still talking today about the one potential ’08 Republican candidate who not only showed up but worked the crowd with the fervor of the missionary he once was.

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, accompanied by wife Anne and one aide, busily worked the overflow crowd at the Washington Hilton. Romney was a visible and well-noticed figure at both the CNN-sponsored reception and the dinner of the 92-year-old press association that has come to be likened to the Oscars.

What made Romney particularly noticeable was the apparent absence of his potential GOP rivals to succeed President Bush in January 2009. John McCain (a gentle target of Bush double Steve Bridges during their remarks, referring to reaching out to “Democrats, Republicans, and John McCain), Rudy Giuliani, Virginia Sen. George Allen, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback—all are considered heavyweight contenders for the GOP nod in two years and none were spotted at the WHCA event or listed in the program and guide to tables. (Although the program had its share of errors—I was there and wasn’t listed myself!)

With a firm grip reminiscent of that of his father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, the Bay State governor vigorously posed for pictures with famous and not-so-famous alike. Although his controversial health care plan has been the subject of national news lately (and in fact was profiled in a column in the Washington Post the following day by veteran pundit David Broder), people seemed more interested in simply meeting Romney than getting a discourse on his policies. Robin and Susan Hayes, a British couple visiting Washington for the weekend and attending the WHCA dinner after a day of tourist activities, asked me to take their picture with the Romneys because (as Susan put it) “if he’s going to be president, we want a shot with him.”

While other Republicans were conspicuous by their absence, there were nonetheless other potential presidential hopefuls from other parties: Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) and wife Jill were at a table near the podium and singled out by Bush (the real deal, not Bridges/Bush) for recognition; and at table #244 was perennial independent presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche.

Several attendees noted that Clooney and Plame and Jeopardy host Alex Trebeck notwithstanding, the celebrities were not exactly out in full form as they have been in past years when the likes of Bo Derek or Mary Tyler Moore were the focus of the paparazzi. As White House Chronicle correspondent Linda Gasparello told me during the reception, “I wish I had brought a 14-year-old along to tell me who some of these celebrities are!”