2016 GOP Field Staying Away From Correspondents' Dinner
As a keyed-up herd of journalists, lawmakers and celebrities gathers Saturday for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, one prominent contingent will not be in attendance: presidential candidates.
Instead, the contenders who hope one day to headline the dinner will be far from it — campaigning in Iowa, at home with family, anywhere but the crowded ballroom at the Washington Hilton.
The marquee event drawing 2016 hopefuls this weekend instead will be a Faith and Freedom Coalition summit in Iowa, where nine Republicans are confirmed to speak, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
Paul was invited to the correspondents’ dinner “by over a dozen [news] outlets,” said his spokesman, Sergio Gor, “but being in Iowa takes precedence over a D.C. social gathering.”
Rubio, who attended in 2011 as a guest of ABC News, is opting to return to Miami after speaking in the Hawkeye State, his spokesman said.
But even those Republican contenders who will not be in Iowa aren’t rushing to score a seat at the correspondents’ dinner.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will be at home in Miami on Saturday “spending time with his grandkids,” spokesman Matt Gorman said. On Sunday, Bush will host a meeting for donors to his super PAC.
One would-be Republican presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson, is even hosting a competing dinner in Chicago, celebrating recipients of his eponymous Carson Scholars Fund awards.
Of the large field of potential aspirants, only businessman and TV personality Donald Trump will be in attendance at the correspondents’ dinner, as a guest of Fox News.
Trump is intimately familiar with the pitfalls of attending the event as a potential candidate: In 2011, President Obama and comedian Seth Meyers roundly roasted him from the stage about his hair, for raising questions about the president’s birthplace and hinting at his own bid for the Oval Office.
“Donald Trump has been saying that he’ll run for president as a Republican — which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke,” Meyers said.
Michele Bachmann was also in the crowd that year, and received her own ribbing from the president.
Bachmann “is thinking about running for president — which is weird, because I hear she was born in Canada,” Obama said. “Yes, Michele, this is how it starts.”
Of course, many candidates and potential candidates have been mocked in absentia — but they avoid the often cruel cutaways on C-SPAN, which are later replayed ad nauseam.
Those reaction shots did no favors last year for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who tried to laugh off a brutal takedown by comedian Joel McHale over the Bridgegate scandal — and his weight.
“Governor, do you want bridge jokes or size jokes? I can go half and half, I know you like a combo platter,” McHale said.
Later, at the exclusive after-party put on by Vanity Fair and Bloomberg, Christie said he thought McHale “was great, and that's exactly what I expected.”
Christie might have indeed expected such treatment after being targeted at the 2012 dinner, where host Jimmy Kimmel joked that Christie "might be misunderstanding New Jersey's slogan.”
“It's not 'The Olive Garden State,’” Kimmel said.
But being the butt of jokes might do less to keep presidential candidates away from the correspondents’ dinner than the event’s diminished cachet.
“For a candidate 10 years ago, this was a no-brainer, but the perception has changed,” said Republican National Committee chief strategist Sean Spicer.
The event is now widely panned as a too-cozy gathering of journalists and the public figures they cover — and the optics might be out of sync with candidates looking to run anti-Washington campaigns.
And, at this stage in the election cycle, the early primary states are the real hot spots, not the nation’s capital.
“The most valuable thing a candidate has is their time,” Spicer said, “and you’ve got to question whether spending that day in Washington, D.C., is of value.”