WASHINGTON – Several prominent Republican donors and a handful of Republican National Committee staffers are complaining about the presidential field after only two 2008 candidates — Mitt Romney and Ron Paul — showed up for a big fundraiser in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night.
Donors from Ohio and Pennsylvania who asked not to be named told FOX News they understood their $1,000 donation and commute to the capital would be rewarded with face time with all the major candidates and President Bush.
At least five Republican candidates originally had been scheduled to show at the event, billed as a "presidential dinner." Republican officials said they sent out an advisory on Monday that included Romney, Paul, John McCain and Fred Thompson. The president and Rudy Giuliani were not listed in the advisory as expected attendees.
After Romney and Paul spoke at the extravagant event held in the National Building Museum, RNC chairman Sen. Mel Martinez announced from the stage that McCain, Giuliani and Thompson would not be appearing. Martinez told the surprised audience that the three had canceled due to scheduling conflicts, and in McCain's case, late Senate votes.
High-money rollers who spent at least $15,000 to attend the dinner were schmoozed a bit by Thompson, Giuliani and McCain's wife, Cindy, at a private reception before the event. But none attended the dinner itself.
The entire evening raised $5 million from 710 donors to go toward helping elect the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, but RNC staffers expressed frustration that so many candidates would be no-shows at a time when Republicans are concerned about rallying the troops and low fundraising totals overall.
The Washington Post reinforced those Republican concerns on Wednesday, reporting that more than a third of the 630 Bush Pioneers and Rangers in 2000 and 2004 — those raising at least $100,000 or $200,000, respectively — had not donated to any Republican candidate.
In fact, more than two dozen Bush Pioneers and Rangers made contributions to Democrats, the newspaper reported. One Pioneer, Alvin R. "Pete" Carpenter, a former chief executive of CSX Transportation, said he sent a contribution to Sen. Barack Obama.
"I have opted out for all the well-documented reasons that disaffected Republicans use," Carpenter told the Post. "I'm not sure which primary I'll vote in. At the moment I will say I'm keeping my powder dry. It's the first time I'm really a bit confused about what I should be doing, or where the country should be headed."
Many of the Republicans who have not offered to assist the GOP have cited discontent with the war in Iraq, anger at Republicans in Congress and a general lack of enthusiasm, the article states.
The result of that discontent is a major fundraising gap between the Republican and Democratic 2008 candidates. By Sept. 30 this year, Democrats had outraised Republicans by $73 million: $223 million to $150 million among all the contenders.
At the RNC gala, contributors did seem happy with Romney, even giving him a standing ovation. But several in the audience seemed bewildered by the absence of others in the top tier, with one confused diner, seeing a FOX News producer's hanging press badge, asking if Thompson would be speaking later. She frowned and slowly sat back at her table when told the RNC aides had informed the press of the no-shows.
Despite the absences, Republican officials tried to stress the importance of the 2008 election. Before showing a highly produced video montage linking the highlights of Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, former RNC chief Ken Mehlman said the events since Sept. 11, 2001, particularly the global War on Terror, demonstrated that "who we make the commander in chief is therefore that more important." He then made an appeal for additional contributions.
Romney, who arrived on stage with his wife, Ann, said the video "tugs at my heartstrings and brings tears to my eyes." He thanked the RNC for helping him jump into this race and then offered his reasons why he's the best candidate, including his business acumen and political experience.
He elicited the largest reaction from the crowd when he criticized Democratic frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who charged she wants to raise taxes.
"Her platform today would not allow her to be elected president of France much less president of this country," he said to laughter. "Hillary Clinton says she's the candidate of change, and she would change America, just not in the right direction."
Tearily, Romney also relayed a story about his recent visit to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he promised the soldiers he met that if they wanted, he would call their families when he returned to the United States. In the end, he phoned 93 different families.
Romney said the reaction from the soldiers' families was nearly universal.
"It is an honor for our family to serve our country, which is the hope of the Earth," Romney said they told him.
Paul received a somewhat less enthusiastic reception but stuck to his platform of smaller government, eliminating the income tax and attracting youth to his campaign.
FOX News' Carl Cameron and Serafin Gomez contributed to this report.