Al Smith Dinner a potential cease-fire in Obama-Romney battle

WASHINGTON -- After their acrimonious debate and bitter barbs on the campaign trail, can Barack Obama and Mitt Romney laugh it off?

The presidential hopefuls will get the chance Thursday night when they share a stage at the Alfred E. Smith Dinner, an annual benefit hosted by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York that has provided comic relief every four years near the end of the campaign.

Part roast, part stand-up routine, Obama and Romney are likely to deliver far more playful jabs at one another at the Manhattan dinner than they did Tuesday night in the second of three debates. 

In 2008, it was Obama and John McCain joking about their debate when the senator from Arizona drew criticism for referring to his opponent as "that one." The Republican nominee said it was all in good fun. "In fact, he even has a pet name for me: George Bush."

McCain also found easy fodder in the epic Democratic primary fight of that year.

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"Even in this room full of proud Manhattan Democrats, I can't shake that feeling that some people here are pulling for me," he said, before turning to his Senate colleague from New York to say: "I'm delighted to see you here tonight, Hillary."

Obama was the butt of his own jokes just as much as McCain. He joked that his first name was Swahili for "that one," and noted that he obviously got his middle name, Hussein, "from someone who never thought I’d run for president."

"Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger," he said. "I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father Jor-El to save the planet Earth."

Both closed with praise for one another, a rare kind word in the closing weeks of a brawl of a campaign.

"I don't want it getting out of this room, but my opponent is an impressive fellow in many ways," McCain said of Obama. "I've had a few glimpses of this man at his best, and I admire his great skill, energy and determination."

"No matter what differences or divisions or arguments we're having right now, we ultimately belong to something bigger and more lasting than a political party," Obama said. "We belong to a community. We share a country. We are all children of God."

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Obama and McCain had a brief working relationship in the Senate that predated the presidential race, which lent some credibility to the harmonious convergence. In contrast, the Obama-Romney relationship appears icy at best, and glimpses of mutual dislike flared at this week's town-hall-style debate.

Adding further intrigue to dinner Thursday is Obama’s uneasy relationship with the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who has been an outspoken critic of the administration’s policy regarding contraceptive coverage in the new healthcare reform law.

The presidential candidates typically sit on both sides of the archbishop at the dinner. Dolan said this summer that he had received "stacks of mail" protesting the invitation of Obama this year.

"For seven decades, the Al Smith Dinner here in New York has been an acclaimed example of such civility in political life," he wrote on his blog. "It is the only time outside of the presidential debates that the two presidential candidates come together ... for an evening of positive, upbeat, patriotic, enjoyable civil discourse."

"Some have told me the invitation is a scandal. That charge weighs on me, as it would on any person of faith. ... In the end, I'm encouraged by the example of Jesus, who was blistered by his critics for dining with those some considered sinners; and by the recognition that, 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."

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The Al Smith Dinner is one of several stops for the president in New York on Thursday. He is scheduled to tape an appearance on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," his second appearance as president on the Comedy Central news satire. He's also to meet with a group of his top donors.

He is set to begin the day with a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., his first stop in the battleground state since he appeared there on the day after the Democratic National Convention.

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