Obama and Romney Dish Out Jokes, Not Jabs, at Annual Al Smith Dinner

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BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty Images

US President Barack Obama, Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney and others attend the 67th annual Al Smith dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel October 18, 2012 in New York, New York.

Last night at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney dined together for the 67th Annual Alfred. E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. It was a brief respite from a brutal campaign, coming just two days after a town hall debate just 20 miles east, during which the candidates looked like they might come to blows.

At the outset, host Al Smith IV, the director of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation, set the tone for the night. He grabbed the lectern like Don Rickles at a Dean Martin roast, toasting guest Mayor Bloomberg with a Big Gulp and sizing down both candidates’ ever-lofty rhetoric. According to White House pool reports, Smith first acknowledged women in the room and said, “It’s good to see who’s getting out of those binders.” It was a quip that proved the proliferation of what’s become a new meme, after Tuesday’s debate when Mitt Romney explained that while serving as governor of Massachusetts, he was provided with “whole binders full of women” to help him fill his Cabinet.

Smith didn’t let Obama off easy either. “It’s never good when your opponent has produced more sons than you’ve produced jobs,” Smith razzed to Obama.

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Romney spoke first, imagining the 1,600 guests dining on poached lobster and rack of lamb through Obama’s eyes. “As President Obama surveys the Waldorf banquet room with everyone in white tie and refinery, you have to wonder what he’s thinking. So little time, so much to redistribute,” he said.

Romney then turned to the press, stating that after the first debate, the headline was “Polls Show Obama Leading from Behind.” Romney also predicted the headline of the dinner: “Obama Embraced by Catholics. Romney Dines with Rich People”. The Catholic community has criticized the Obama administration for requiring some religious institutions, such as colleges and hospitals, to provide cost-free contraception coverage to employees.

Obama, in turn, zinged the Republicans use of Clint Eastwood at the party’s national convention. His odd performance with an empty chair grabbed much of the attention away from Romney’s nomination. “Please take your seats,” Obama told the crowd, “or else Clint Eastwood will yell at them.”  Obama also gave a personal apology for his poor showing in the first debate, directed to MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews. “Four years ago, I gave him a thrill up his leg; this time around, I gave him a stroke,” the President quipped.

Jokes aside, both candidates seemed to seek peace, if only for the night. Romney told the crowd, “Our president has had some very fine and gracious moments. Don’t tell anyone I said so, but our 44th president has many gifts and a beautiful family that would make any man proud.”

And Obama said of Romney, “We may have different political perspectives, but I think, in fact I’m certain, that we share the hope that the next four years will reflect the same decency, and the same willingness to come together for a higher purpose that are on display this evening.”

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At dinner, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York who spoke at both the Republican and Democratic conventions in late August and early September, separated Obama and Romney, appearing to keep the peace — but also a safe distance — between them.

The dinner started in 1945 in tribute to former Democratic New York governor Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic nominee for President. Both Presidential candidates have made the dinner a frequent stop during campaign years, starting in 1960 when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took the stage to speak and to help raise money for charities. This year’s dinner raised $5 million for various children’s organizations.

After Thursday’s brief bread-breaking and temper-cooling, both candidates were whisked away to continue speeding along the campaign trail. Obama is attending a rally in Virginia, and Romney is headlining a similar event in Daytona Beach, Fla., just a few hours north of Boca Raton, where the two candidates will face each other Monday for their third and final debate.

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