Political insiders know that the Alfred E. Smith Dinner strives to honor decades of civic and religious traditions.
In election years, it's a tradition that the presidential candidates appear -- wearing formal, white-tie attire -- and satirize their own public images, while also aiming a few gentle shots at their opponent and the ranks of elite journalists in attendance.
Thus, Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney, with a nod to his Mormon fuddy-duddy reputation, reminded the audience of wine-sipping socialites that, "Usually when I get invited to gatherings like this, it's just to be the designated driver."
Noting that this campaign has not, journalistically speaking, unfolded on a level playing field, he added: "I've already seen early reports from tonight's dinner. Headline -- 'Obama Embraced by Catholics. Romney Dines with Rich People.'"
In response, the president poked fun at his own complex and, for some, controversial religious and family background by noting that, like Romney, he has a rather unusual name. "Actually, Mitt is his middle name. I wish I could use my middle name," said Barack Hussein Obama.
But, yes, there is the issue of the Romney family's wealth. "Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in Midtown," quipped Obama. "I understand Governor Romney went shopping FOR some stores in Midtown."
It is a tradition, of course, that the jokes grab the headlines after this unique, YouTube-friendly scene at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue.
But it is also a tradition that this dinner has, throughout its 67-year history, been a crucial fundraiser for charities linked to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, netting about $5 million this year.
Thus, the Catholic shepherd of New York City speaks last and, literally, offers his benediction on this salute to lighthearted, generous public discourse in the tense battlefield that is national politics.
The stakes were especially high this year since Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced withering criticism from Catholic conservatives for extending the traditional invitation to the president -- since Obama has repeatedly clashed with the church over issues related to abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom.
The cardinal joined in the humorous repartee -- at one point noting that he couldn't read the greeting sent by Pope Benedict XVI because it was written in Latin -- but turned serious in his final prayer.
He reminded the audience that the dinner honored Smith as the first Catholic selected as the presidential nominee of a major party, but also as the "happy warrior" who tirelessly fought to help the poor, the powerless and other forgotten Americans.