Hitting the circuit with GOP faithful

Perk: For some, this week is about more than celebrating a presidential candidate: It's time to party.

Convention Parties

Election 2004 -- The Republican Convention

September 01, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- The convention was still under way, and the Republicans were hooting with their official passes dangling from their necks. But here, in the Hammerstein Ballroom a couple of blocks from the convention hall, this wasn't presidential politics.

This was country singer Travis Tritt, clad in leather pants and bathed in red klieg lights.

"It's electric!" Washington lobbyist Kevin Fay shouted over the band. "Electric!"

This crowd didn't hear former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's speech Monday night; instead, they yeehawed through Tritt's honky-tonk show until they were hoarse.

Republican unfaithful? Hardly. But some folks at this convention will spend as little time as possible inside Madison Square Garden. Instead, they'll be enjoying another perk:

Making the party circuit.

To some people, convention-week parties are the political answer to Dewey Beach.

For Republicans, as it was for the Democrats at their convention in Boston, this week is not just about celebrating a presidential candidate. It's about fellowship and bonding and strawberry rhubarb coolers with vodka, like the ones being served at the General Motors party honoring seven U.S. senators with the Tritt concert.

It's about networking and socializing and basking in the fun that comes with getting into corporate parties that exclude other people. Of course, with exclusivity comes rejection, and for many, the evening is skewered, hors d'oeuvres-like, by a kind of social pressure. With dozens of parties and not everyone getting into them, some Republicans are left with a giant question looming over their fun:

How high does this party rank?

Many revelers considered the GM party plenty hot, with multi- million-dollar concept cars adorning the space and tray after tray of filet mignon and seared tuna satay passing like traffic in the speed lane. But, as always, some were in search of something better, sometimes swapping party invitations in an effort to trade-up. One man clutched a silver congressional pen, the kind given to members of Congress, bragging that it doubled as a pass to the elite "warehouse party" thrown every night this week at the Tunnel nightclub. Others were ready to hop to the cigar party at the Havana Room, or the "Wild West Saloon" theme party with the Charlie Daniels Band at Crobar, or the shopping party at Bergdorf Goodman. As the evening wore on, party defensiveness set in.

"Tonight, this is the best party," insisted George Braun, an agriculture lobbyist from Washington. "It's better than the others." He ought to know a good one; he scored an invite to a Sunday night bash featuring Bush's 22-year-old daughters, Jenna and Barbara.

A sighting of the Bush twins may be the ultimate score at this convention. But celebrities like Tritt were undaunted.

"Needless to say," the singer roared to the crowd of several hundred, many of whom skipped the speeches to attend, "I am proud to be amongst you people. I am one of you!"

Tritt, the singer known for catchy tunes, country-fried patriotism and a mullet hairdo, was one of the entertainers critical of the Dixie Chicks when the band's lead singer criticized President Bush over going to war in Iraq. On this night, Tritt's hair was a little more sculpted, but the tone was still red, white and blue; he even took aim at Osama bin Laden in one song.

As the music blasted, lobbyists, delegates and congressional staffers clustered around silver elephant topiaries. Appetites called for red meat -- in politics and canapes.

"Portobello mushroom fry?" a waitress asked a cluster of schmoozing men.

"If it wasn't alive once, I don't want to eat it," said Christopher Stephen, a lawyer with the Northern Virginia-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

He and his buddies contemplated the best outcome of the evening:

"My girlfriend flies up from Atlanta to see me," said Stephen, 29.

His buddy Chris Payne chortled. "Best case?" the 26-year- old Prudential lobbyist said. "My fiance doesn't."

Some joked that the week's parties should end with a group visit to the Betty Ford Center. But not everyone was looking to dance on a table Paris Hilton-style. Brian Downs, 24, an Oklahoma delegate, stayed on message even while bopping with drink in hand.

"The best part of the week is being a part of the political process," he said as Tritt howled about "girls gone wild, reality TV-style." (None in this ballroom did. )

For General Motors, which hosted an equally lavish string of parties during the Democratic National Convention in July, the evening was a nod to seven Republican senators. Though recent campaign finance reforms have banned corporations, labor unions and individuals from donating unlimited "soft money" to the political parties, corporations can still throw bashes for lawmakers as long as the galas are held in their "honor."

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