Republican Dinner Raises Questions About GOP Leadership

Major GOP dinner raises questions about the rifts in the minority party.

WASHINGTON, June 9, 2009— -- Some may consider it a snub, but Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was seemingly undeterred when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich replaced her as the keynote speaker at a major Republican event.

With husband Todd by her side, the former vice presidential candidate attended the joint Senate and House of Representatives fundraiser Monday night despite being dis-invited as the keynote speaker.

Palin, hailed last year as the rising star of the GOP, was picked to headline the event in March but was replaced by Gingrich after she failed to give organizers a firm response. She was reportedly asked again last week to speak, but then the invitation was rescinded.

Despite the snub, Palin managed a fair share of the spotlight as speculation over whether she would or wouldn't attend dominated political discussion throughout the day. She ended up making an appearance and sat at a table near the front of the hall. Palin was recognized by National Republican Campaign Committee's Chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Gingrich, in his 56-minute speech.

"Despite every effort of the elite media to prop up Joe Biden and pretend he actually knows what he's doing, I felt, looking at John McCain and Sarah Palin, this country would have been amazingly better off had they been in the White House," said Gingrich, referring to their reunion before the event.

Gingrich, who has come to the forefront as a critic of the Obama administration, is considered Palin's potential rival for the Republican's presidential pick in 2012, although neither has discussed their political aspirations.

Questions remain as to who will emerge as the new leader of the party facing an identity crisis.

Some are eyeing Palin for the post. Clearly popular with the GOP's political base, the Alaska governor has the ability to draw huge crowds. Nearly 20,000 people came to hear her speak in upstate New York this past weekend.

But others say she has a long way to go before setting her eyes on the White House.

"I was a big Palin fan. She was exciting, new, different, which is good for GOP," former press secretary for George W. Bush Ari Fleischer told "Good Morning America." "I've come to learn ... she has a long distance to go before she rises to the level of being a serious presidential candidate. ... The substance needs to come first."

At the same time, Fleischer said Gingrich is also unlikely to be the new leader.

"Newt is a wonderful, fabulous dinner speaker. ... But he's not going to be the next nominee of the Republican party," Fleischer said. "It cannot be back to the future, it's going to be a new future."

Clash of the GOP Titans

Palin has had her fair share of controversy. There's daughter Bristol Palin, an unwed teenage mother who recently came under fire for promoting abstinence, and allegations that in a recent speech Palin borrowed from an article by Gingrich without proper credit.

Her comments during and after the presidential campaign continue to draw controversy.

"[Government is] expanding at such a large degree that if Americans aren't paying attention, unfortunately our country could evolve into something that we do not even recognize. Certainly that is so far from what the founders of our country had in mind for us," Palin said in an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity.

"Socialism?" Hannity asked.

"Well, that is where we are headed," Palin responded.

Many say Republicans should not alienate Palin, even though she can be unpredictable.

"They see Sarah and they can't corral her and control her. She could say anything ... and this unnerves them," said conservative Bay Buchanan, a former United States treasurer. "She plays a very exciting game, whereas the rest is somewhat boring, and so I think she's an enormous asset to our party."

Gingrich Assails Obama

The dinner was emceed by actor Jon Voight, who was quite vocal in his condemnation of the Obama administration. Voight brought up the president's "radical connections" to people such as Bill Ayers, called Obama a "false prophet" who Republican leaders needed to "bring an end to" and added that everything Obama has recommended "has turned out to be disastrous." Voight also called Vice President Joe Biden one of the "great double-talkers of our time."

In a 56-minute speech at the dinner -- where according to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party raised roughly $14.45 million -- Gingrich lashed out at Obama for his policies and called for the GOP to reunify ahead of the upcoming 2010 and 2012 elections.

"I think our goals should be to reach out to the American people in every possible way to make sure that John Boehner [R-Ohio] becomes the speaker of the House in January of 2011," Gingrich said. "That Mitch McConnell [R-Ky.] becomes the senate majority leader, and that this is a one-term presidency in the Jimmy Carter tradition."

The former Georgia lawmaker said the administration's stimulus plan "has already failed."

"Let's be clear. This is not something that President Obama inherited from George W. Bush. He got his stimulus on his schedule, for his amount, delivered by his robots in Congress, who did exactly what they were told without reading the bill," Gingrich said. "So he can't turn around now and so, 'Oh darn, George Bush made me have a stimulus plan.'"

Gingrich defended former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has also emerged as a leading critic of the new administration's policies on terrorism.

"I am happy that Dick Cheney is a Republican," the former Georgia congressman said. "I am also happy that Colin Powell is a Republican. ... A majority party will have lots of debates within the party."

Cheney had recently lashed out at Powell for endorsing Obama in the last election and said that he thought Powell had already left the GOP.

Gingrich's views have been echoed by other Republicans, who say the party needs to return to its roots to defeat Democrats in the next cycle of elections.

"Republicans need to go back to their bread and butter, back to fiscal conservativism," Fleischer said. "These economic woes combining with the huge debt. ... This is the route back for Republicans."

ABC News' Dan Harris and Bret Hovell contributed to this report.