WASHINGTON — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Monday urged some 2,000 Republican party loyalists to stand up for GOP principles but to be inclusive as the party tries to retake the majority.
"I am happy that Dick Cheney is a Republican," Gingrich said at the annual Senate-House fundraising dinner. "I am also happy that Colin Powell is a Republican."
Cheney, the former vice president under President George W. Bush, and Powell, who was Bush's secretary of state, have feuded recently over the approach of the party, with Powell calling for more moderation and Cheney arguing against that.
"A majority Republican party will have lots of debates within the party," Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman, said. "That is the nature of majority parties."
Standing in as the party's de facto leader, Gingrich was filling a speaking role that Bush held in recent years and that was initially offered to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president, this year. He headlined a series of speakers who gave the crowd a blistering review of President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.
Despite the rallying cry, the GOP faithful still weren't opening their wallets as they have in recent past. The event took in a relatively small fundraising haul of $14.5 million, the lowest total in at least five years. Last year, it raised $21.5 million, compared with $15.4 million in 2007 and $27 million in 2006.
Committee officials attributed the drop partly to the struggling economy and pointed out that when Bush headlined, he gave the dinner a bigger draw for donations.
The dinner for weeks was clouded by a will-she-or-won't-she mystery about whether Palin would make an appearance.
The party's 2008 vice presidential nominee left frustrated organizers hanging as late as Monday afternoon after she was told she wouldn't have a speaking role at the event.
It was the latest twist in an unusual public flap between the potential 2012 presidential candidate and the Republican congressional leaders who run the fundraising committees.
In March, organizers replaced Palin as the keynote speaker with Gingrich after she wavered over accepting the invitation. Although the committees issued a press release announcing her as the headliner, Palin said she never confirmed that she would speak and wanted to make sure the event did not interfere with state business.
She hadn't been expected to attend until last week, when her advisers approached organizers saying she would be near Washington and would like to come.
Palin, who attended with her husband, Todd, was introduced to the crowd but did not speak.
Actor Jon Voight, who hosted the dinner, delivered a particularly harsh rebuke to Obama, saying he was "embarrassed" by the president and that Obama's leadership would cause the "downfall" of the country.
"We are becoming a weak nation," he said, calling Obama a "false prophet" and his administration the "Obama oppression."
Republican leaders who spoke afterward praised his comments. "You're great. Come back any time," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. Gingrich called Voight's comments a rallying cry until the next elections in 2010.
Palin and Gingrich are both considered possible presidential candidates in 2012, and the confusion over the fundraiser comes as Palin is denying an allegation that she borrowed heavily from an article he co-wrote in a recent speech.
Responding to an accusation from a blogger on the Huffington Post Web site, Palin's attorney said the governor gave Gingrich proper credit when she used some of his material about former President Ronald Reagan.
The event, held in a hall resembling a small arena at the downtown Washington convention center, is one of the party's largest fundraisers of the year, drawing major donors and lawmakers whose support would be key to a presidential campaign. Organizers said some 150 members of Congress attended Monday's dinner.
Gingrich's remarks about inclusion came after he was criticized for calling Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a racist over her comments that a "wise Latina" would reach a better conclusion than a white man without similar experiences. Gingrich backed away from that criticism last week, saying his comments may have been too harsh.
Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy in New York contributed to this report.