WASHINGTON — The presidential campaign, which has been a spectacle of finger-pointing and recrimination, is oh so briefly taking a sharp detour so President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney can play politics for laughs.
The rivals are quieting the hostilities Thursday evening to address the venerable Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a white-tie gala at New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel that has been a required stop for politicians since the end of World War II.
In keeping with tradition, both candidates have prepared lighthearted fare for the fundraising event organized by the Catholic Archdiocese of New York for the benefit of needy children. That was the case almost precisely four years ago when Obama and Republican presidential contender John McCain poked fun at themselves and each other just a day after an intense presidential debate at Hofstra University on Long Island.
As in 2008, this year's dinner comes in the wake of a fiery and confrontational presidential debate — again at Hofstra — lending an air of drama to the pivot from acrimony to humor.
What's more, the dinner's host is Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the spiritual leader of the Archdiocese of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has clashed with the Obama administration over contraception provisions in the new health care law. Dolan has said he received "stacks of mail" protesting the dinner invitation to Obama. But Dolan has sought to avoid playing political favorites, even delivering benedictions at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer.
The dinner is Romney's only public event Thursday. Obama was campaigning in New Hampshire, one of a handful of closely fought states in the election, before limbering up for his dinner speech with an appearance on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."
Romney and Obama were traveling to New York, a state firmly on the Obama side of the political ledger, two days after their Hofstra debate and one day after they and their running mates fanned out to battleground states to mount an aggressive appeal for undecided female voters.
Obama campaigned in Iowa and Ohio on Wednesday, wearing a pink wristband to show support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and mocking Romney's remark during Tuesday night's debate that as Massachusetts governor he received "whole binders full of women" as he sought to diversify his administration. "We don't have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented women," Obama said.
At Ohio University, Obama beseeched a crowd of about 14,000 students to vote early. "You've got to go back to your dorm, grab that guy who's sitting there eating chips, watching 'SportsCenter,'" he said. "Tell him he's got to vote, too. "
Romney made his own pitch to women, a play for votes that comes as he moderates some of the conservative stands he took while seeking the Republican nomination.
"This president has failed American's women," he told a crowd in Chesapeake, Va. "They've suffered in terms of getting jobs," he added, saying that 3.6 million more of them are in poverty now than when Obama took office.
His campaign also launched a television commercial that seemed designed to soften his opposition to abortion while urging women to keep pocketbook issues uppermost in their minds when they cast their ballots.
Obama's appearance on "The Daily Show" will be his second since becoming president and his sixth overall with host Jon Stewart.
The Al Smith dinner is named for the former four-term governor of New York who was the unsuccessful 1928 Democratic presidential candidate and the first Catholic to run for president. His great-grandson, Alfred W. Smith IV, is the dinner's master of ceremonies. "I obviously didn't know your great-grandfather," Obama deadpanned as he addressed Smith in 2008, "but from everything that Sen. McCain has told me, the two of them had a great time before Prohibition." McCain, then 72 and 25 years older than Obama, cracked up.
The dinner is such a part of the national political fabric that it was featured in a 2005 episode of the television drama "The West Wing."
While the Catholic Church has differences with Obama on abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage, the Conference of Catholic Bishops has also clashed with Republicans, opposing GOP budget plans that cut programs for the poor and criticizing efforts to deny illegal immigrants tax refunds from the $1,000-per-child tax credit.