WASHINGTON — At the Democrats' $10,000-a-plate Senate fund-raiser, it was Independent James M. Jeffords who stole the spotlight and most of the applause, promising to help party leaders keep the majority he handed them last spring.
The Vermont senator made the equivalent of a victory lap Wednesday night, reaping again Democratic laurels over his decision to leave the Republican Party and single-handedly change the course of the Senate.
Gone was the reluctant party-switcher.
"One day, as I listened to Sen. [Phil] Gramm go on and on about how the most important legislative work we needed to do was cut the tax rate on the higher tax brackets, it struck me again, 'What am I doing here? What are these people thinking?' " Jeffords said.
Jeffords also left no doubt that he would use his newfound celebrity on the campaign trail to help other Democrats.
"One man or one woman can make a difference," Jeffords said. "We will work hard to ensure that Sen. [Tom] Daschle continues to be our majority leader."
The dinner, held among the marble pillars and candlelight of a secluded area of the city's Union Station, was the primary fund-raiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It drew about 500 people, including 47 senators.
The event was expected to raise at least $6 million. Many who bought tickets often do not plan to attend.
To say Jeffords was treated as a hero would not be an overstatement.
After a gourmet meal, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called Jeffords' decision the most courageous "this town has seen in a long time."
The standing ovation: 36 seconds.
When people finally took their seats, Murray continued, "Jim Jeffords is the best friend we have in the U.S. Senate."
Another standing ovation: 22 seconds.
Jeffords didn't disappoint, criticizing President Bush and Republican policy on education, abortion, missile defense and energy.
"It became increasingly clear that my optimism about our new president truly being a compassionate conservative and committing to issues of particular concern to me, such as education, was misplaced," he said.