NEW YORK — After a testy, bruising debate days ago, President Obama and Mitt Romney met Thursday on an entirely different — and more pleasant — stage, appearing at a quasi-roast for charity here, where they ribbed each other and themselves.
Romney, who spoke first, mixed his humor with gibes at the president about the nation’s debt, his healthcare policy, unemployment and his penchant for blaming continuing struggles on his predecessor George W. Bush.
“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,” the GOP nominee said.
Obama focused more on self-mockery, including repeatedly noting his poor debate performance two weeks ago. But he also slipped in some political points, such as when he reminded the audience that the third and final debate on Monday would focus on foreign policy.
“Spoiler alert: We got Bin Laden,” he deadpanned.
The formal evening was an opportunity for both men to shake off the animosity after a campaign that has grown increasingly bitter and competitive, as demonstrated by their Tuesday debate on Long Island. The Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner is an annual benefit hosted by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York that has provided comic relief every four years. Thursday marked the seventh time that the two major-party nominees have appeared together at the event, now in its 67th year.
While Obama and his 2008 rival Sen. John McCain had a relationship from working together in the Senate, the president and Romney have no such ties and their relations are, at best, chilly. The two were cordial as they arrived on the four-tiered dais in a ballroom at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. The president smiled and slapped Romney on the back as he took his seat to the right of the diocese’s leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, immediately next to the lectern.
Adding further intrigue to Thursday’s dinner was Obama’s uneasy relationship with Dolan, who as president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops has been an outspoken critic of the administration’s policy regarding contraceptive coverage in the new healthcare reform law, something Romney alluded to in his remarks.
If there were hard feelings, “we might get an indication of that during dinner to see if the president’s wine turns into water. Or for that matter, if my water turns into wine,” Romney said, one of three times he highlighted his abstention from alcohol because of his Mormon beliefs.
This year’s dinner, attended by 1,600 people who dined on poached lobster, rack of lamb and a dark chocolate cadeau, raised $5 million for the foundation to benefit needy city children. Alfred E. Smith IV, who served as emcee, joked that he was rebranding the charity a “Super PAC for the Soul.”
Both men lavished praise on the charity and were self-deprecating, Romney by acknowledging his wealth.
“A campaign can require a lot of wardrobe changes — blue jeans in the morning perhaps, suits for lunch fundraisers, a sport coat for dinner. But it’s nice to finally relax and to wear what Ann and I wear around the house,” said Romney, clad in white tie while his wife wore a black-and-white dress and a cape.
Obama repeatedly poked fun at his performance in their first debate in Denver, where he was widely panned as meandering and lethargic.
“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,” he said, later adding that he realized that night — his wedding anniversary — that there were worse things than forgetting to get a gift.
The men, both well received by the politically mixed crowd, agreed in some areas. Both chided Vice President Joe Biden and praised each other’s roles as husbands and fathers. They also found ways to punch at one another, with Obama turning to a Romney foreign trip that was widely regarded as disastrous.
“Of course, world affairs are a challenge for every candidate,” he said. “After all, some of you guys remember after my foreign trip in 2008 I was attacked as a celebrity because I was so popular with our allies overseas, and I have to say I’m impressed with how well Gov. Romney has avoided that problem.”
Romney, meanwhile, talked about how he prepared for the debates and merged a mention of the flak he has taken for calling for the end of federal funding for public television with one about the size of the national debt.
“Find the biggest available straw man, and then just mercilessly attack it,” he said, joking about how he readied himself. “Big Bird didn’t even see it coming. By the way, in the spirit of ‘Sesame Street,’ the president’s remarks are brought to you tonight by the letter O and the number 16 trillion.”