Bobby Jindal auditions for vice president in front of N.Y. Republicans, while Gingrich promises to fall in line
On Thursday night, the hundreds of New York Republicans who packed into the Sheraton ballroom for the party's annual dinner were each greeted by a determined-looking Bobby Jindal smiling up from their seat cushion.
The office of Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and a frequent topic of vice presidential speculation, had shipped 800 copies of his book Leadership and Crisis to the hotel, and they had been placed on every available seat.
The governor had also requested a 45-minute speaking slot, which he used to talk about everything from the failings of President Obama to his immigrant upbringing and the surprising wisdom of his father's advice, to the free-market ways to clean up an oil spill, to his own tranformative changes to education policy.
Some people liked it.
"Bobby Jindal is inspirational," said Carl Paladino, the party's last gubernatorial nominee, after the speech. "He's rocking."
Others seemed less inspired. As the speech wore on, Jindal's applause lines drew less and less of a response, and tables broke out into their own visible side conversations, while Jindal joked about how the vacuums used to clean up after the Deepwater Horizon spill were the same ones used to empty "port-o-potties after a football game on a Friday night."
Dinner waited in the wings until he finished, right around the 45-minute mark.
"I can assure you that I will speak shorter than our prior speakers, because the food is here," said State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos when he finally took to the podium, to laughs and cheers.
The night was supposed to have been a little more electric.
During the brief moment when it looked as if New York might play a relevant role in the nominating process, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich had each accepted speaking roles at the dinner, and Mitt Romney was rumored to be mulling his invitation, too.
But Santorum dropped out of the race shortly thereafter.
The only one who still bothered to show was Gingrich, who didn't even pretend to be a viable candidate, saying he had stayed in the race "to articulate big themes and big issues,” which included lower gas prices and a universal right to bear arms that he said would help people in places like Darfur.
And he assured the crowd that he would rally behind Romney.
“I’m clearly the underdog by a huge margin," he said. "But if I were to become the nominee, he would work all-out, because our grandchildren’s future is at stake. If he becomes the nominee, Callista and I will work for him because it’s our grandchildren’s future at stake. The fact is we are dedicated to reunifying the Republican Party and winning the presidency.”
Gingrich, the possibility of whose nomination had been the stuff of dystopic nightmares for many New York Republicans, received a standing ovation from about half the audience.
(One of Gingrich's most vocal critics, former Staten Island congressman and borough president Guy Molinari, received a lifetime achievement award from the party, but sent a surrogate, Congressman Michael Grimm, in his stead. Grimm didn't mention Gingrich.)
If nothing else, Gingrich's presence seemed to swell the media ranks a bit. After his speech, a crowd of reporters spotted him in a back kitchen and then scurried out to the street in the hopes of catching him, but to no avail.
So reporters trudged back up for Jindal, who is still trying to restore himself as a rising star, after a widely panned response to the president's first State of the Union speech in 2009, which Jindal later admitted was "awful."
He got better reviews last night.
"I tell you the truth, that was the first speech of that length that I've listened to him on, and he was very impressive," said John Catsimatidis, a top bundler for Romney. "He's a smart guy."
And Catsimatidis nodded at least a little in Jindal's direction when asked whether Romney should make ethnic diversity a priority in choosing a running mate.
"I think he has to make up his own mind," said Catsimatidis. "I think he probably needs somebody from the South, or at least make the South happy."
Jindal made a beeline for the exit, though one reporter had caught him long enough to extract a non-answer from him on his vice-presidential ambitions.
"I thought he was reading the book," one person joked.
Later, the party moved across the street to Rosie O'Grady's bar, with Carl Paladino holding court with U.S. Senate candidate Wendy Long and Councilman Eric Ulrich, before a morning Jetblue flight back to Buffalo for a Newt rally. Jindal was there too, staring up from six copies scattered over the surface of a table in the corner.