An annual fundraiser run by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner has hosted presidential candidates since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Though they dress formally in white tie and tails, the candidates go for laughs in their remarks. Four years ago, Obama cracked that he shared "the philosophy of Alfred E. Smith and the ears of Alfred E. Neuman,'' the gap-toothed Mad magazine avatar.
Cardinal Dolan, archbishop of New York, is host of the event and was criticized by some Catholics for inviting Obama because of the church's opposition to the administration's requirement that employer health insurance cover contraception. At the same time, Catholic relief organizations have been critical of Romney's running mate Paul Ryan, saying he espouses budget cuts that would hurt poor Americans.
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki spoofed pre-debate expectations when she predicted Thursday morning that Romney would get bigger laughs. "Mitt Romney has practiced for longer than any presidential candidate in history for tonight. We expect him to be drop-on-the-floor funny,'' Psaki said Thursday - borrowing a tactic from Sen. John McCain's remarks at the dinner four years ago, when he preceded Obama and told the audience the Democrat would deliver "the funniest 15 minutes of your life or any other.''
After the tense exchanges of this week's town hall debate - which may well resume Monday in the final debate - the campaigns turned Thursday to a softer sell: Ann Romney appeared on a daytime talk show, Bruce Springsteen performed at an Obama rally hosted by former president Bill Clinton, and Obama talked to political satirist Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Michelle Obama is to appear Friday on Live with Kelly and Michael.
With Stewart, Obama joked that he had to issue a presidential directive to stop Vice President Biden from attending meetings clad only in a wet bathing suit, but he turned serious in defense of his administration's handling of the attack in Libya that killed a U.S. ambassador.
"What happens, during the course of a presidency, is that the government is a big operation, and any given time something screws up. And you make sure that you find out what's broken and you fix it,'' Obama said.
"Every piece of information that we get - as we got it - we laid it out to the American people," Obama told Stewart. Officials initially attributed the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others to the protest of an anti-Islam film that got out of hand. Days later, they called it a preplanned terrorist attack. Asked about better communication and security, Obama said, "When four Americans get killed, it's not optimal. We're going to fix it. All of it."
Romney canceled plans to appear with his wife on The View, but son Josh went along and told viewers Tagg Romney "didn't mean it" when he said he wanted to take a swing at Obama during Tuesday's debate. Besides, he added, Tagg "has slugged me a couple times - I assure you President Obama has nothing to worry about."
Despite the light talk format of the show, politics crept in. Ann Romney said her husband would not run again if he loses in November. Asked about her stance on abortion, she first declined to answer: "The good news is I'm not running for office, and I don't have to say what I feel,'' she said, before adding, "I'm pro-life, I am happy to say. And Mitt has always been a pro-life person.'' As Massachusetts governor, Romney supported abortion rights, but since then has said he wants to restrict them.
Before going onstage at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel for the dinner, Obama squeezed in a fundraiser at the luxury hotel, the same venue where Romney's top donors gathered this week for a "retreat.'' Earlier in the day, he campaigned in New Hampshire, which despite its small number of electoral votes has been heavily contested between Obama and Romney.
Friday, Obama campaigns in Virginia, and Romney returns to the swing state trail in Daytona Beach, Fla. In a sign of confidence that it will win North Carolina, the Romney campaign confirmed that it is pulling some staffers out of the state and sending them to Ohio, which is up for grabs.