The Governor Who Came to Dinner: Did the GOP Snub Palin?

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Michael Nagle / Getty

Alaska governor and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin attends an autism-awareness fundraiser sponsored by Autism Speaks at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., on June 7, 2009

How in the world is the Republican Party going to orchestrate its comeback if it's having such a tough time organizing the seating chart for one fundraising dinner? That, at least, is the question being posed by many amused spectators of the GOP's puzzling game of musical chairs it appears to be playing with Sarah Palin.

The embarrassing spectacle concerns the roster of speakers for Monday evening's GOP annual joint Senate and House fundraiser, the biggest Republican congressional event of the year, which is expected to rake in at least $10 million. The Alaska governor was originally invited last spring by Pete Sessions, the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), to address the dinner. She accepted, or so Sessions thought, and a press release went out. But there was apparently a miscommunication in Palin World between Washington and Alaska advisers, because as it turned out, the 2008 vice presidential nominee had a conflict and said she might not be able to attend. In the meantime, Sessions and his Senate counterpart Senator John Cornyn cast around for another keynote speaker and decided on Newt Gingrich. The former speaker accepted, the invitations were printed, and everything looked set. (See pictures of Palin on the campaign trail.)

Until last week, that is, when fundraiser and Palin supporter Fred Malek pushed the National Republican Senatorial Committee — headed by Cornyn — to re-extend the invitation to Palin. The Alaska governor would be in the area, marking the 50th anniversary of Alaska's statehood with a parade in Auburn, N.Y., the home of William Seward, the former U.S. Secretary of State who spearheaded the Alaska purchase. The idea, according to a Senate GOP staffer, was to make her appearance at the dinner a surprise.

This plan backfired as well, however. After Cornyn extended the second invitation to speak, Sessions, concerned that she'd upstage Gingrich, vetoed her speaking role. "Chairman Sessions is a big supporter of Governor Palin, which is why he invited her to be the keynote speaker when the event was first announced," said NRCC spokesman Ken Spain. "A great deal of effort has been put into this fundraising event, and Speaker Gingrich has gone above and beyond the call of duty. It is our hope that Governor Palin will attend the dinner and be recognized, but we understand if her busy schedule doesn't permit her to do so." (See pictures of polarizing politicians at LIFE.com.)

As first reported by Politico, after Palin was informed Saturday that she could come but would not have a speaking role, her staff angrily said she likely wouldn't attend the dinner. Cornyn reached out to her personally on Sunday to try to change her mind, and on Monday, Sessions was also reportedly working overtime to try to persuade the popular Republican to attend the event. By late Monday afternoon, Palin had reportedly decided to attend (though not speak at) the dinner.

Some House aides complain that Cornyn — who was responsible for pulling the plug on Palin initially, when she waffled about whether she could commit to the dinner — issued the second invitation only because he recently ran afoul of conservatives when he endorsed Florida Governor Charlie Crist over conservative darling Mark Rubio months ahead of the primary for the Florida Senate. Cornyn's folks, not surprisingly, reject this idea. (See highlights from a debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.)

Before the current p.r. gaffe, Palin's trip to the lower 48 seemed to have been going well; it included an Alaska-themed parade that drew 20,000, a Yankees game with Rudy and Judy Giuliani and a dinner honoring her for the Independent Group Home Living Foundation, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities. (Palin's fifth child, Trig, has Down syndrome.) "They have been all over the map for the most part since the election," says a former GOP aide who worked with Palin. "But this trip has been smart." Perhaps it seemed that way at first, but the dinner snafu has given further fuel to GOP critics, who wasted no time in seizing on it as further evidence that Palin is a political amateur.

In fact, what the entire Palin saga really shows is what a hard time the Republican establishment is having in pleasing its conservative base and trying to expand it. Palin, after all, is at the top of many lists of possible 2012 presidential contenders, and she remains hugely popular with the Republican base. But she'll never get elected without the support of an establishment that still has its doubts about her mainstream viability. These people need each other; if only they could figure out how to break bread with one another.

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See the screwups of Campaign '08.