Jeb Bush speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME
March 22, 2015 10:54 PM EDT

Republican donors gathered at an exclusive retreat this weekend to compare notes on the 2016 presidential field and hear the candidates’ pitches directly.

The celebratory mood was palpable, buoyed by another strong fundraising month for the party, the impending launch of the primary contest and a spate of negative stories about Hillary Clinton.

Donors in custom pins designed by the party backslapped their way through the pinkish walls of the Waldorf Astoria Resort and Club, as many of the candidates they elected in 2014, and the ones they are hoping to elect in 2016 preened for their support. Sean Spicer, the RNC’s chief strategist and communications director, said it was the “largest pre-nomination retreat in terms of both donor attendance and speakers.”

Throughout the weekend, the presidential contenders held private meetings with the assembled donors, broken into classes like “Eagles” ($15,000+), “Regents” ($60,000+), and “Team 100” ($100,000+). New this year, thanks to congressional action dramatically increasing donation limits to national parties, were the members of the “RNC Trust,” who have pledged to give the more than $330,000 legal limit annually.

The lavish resort is nestled between a golf course and a marina and across a sound from the beach, though the 36-hour conference was jammed with sessions on party data and messaging. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus sought to leverage the celebrity and celebration to plug the more mundane mechanics, as party staffers held briefings on technology and field program advances in the GOP since 2012. Pollster Frank Luntz held court in a session and Republican senators held a closed-door panel where they laid into the emerging nuclear deal with Iran.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio delivered well-regarded remarks Friday evening, highlighting their domestic themes of growing the party and criticizing President Obama’s foreign policy. Each, attendees said, was interrupted by multiple rounds of applause. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker focused his remarks on the economy, delivering, like the others, a modified version of his stump speech for the well-heeled audience.

On Saturday evening, New Jersey Gov. Christie called on the party to avoid flip-floppers in a pre-dinner reception before joining the Team 100 dinner, along with a coterie of Republican members of Congress. Texas Gov. Rick Perry rotated among the class dinners, while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal addressed the post-dinner dessert. Former Sen. Rick Santorum and former New York Gov. George Pataki attended the weekend gathering, as well as businessman Donald Trump, who spoke Friday evening and, according to multiple attendees, spent much of his speech trying to show off his connections to the assembled donors.

Among the members of Congress in attendance for the weekend were Sens. Cory Gardner, Pat Roberts, Mike Rounds, Thom Tillis, David Perdue and Deb Fischer and Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Renee Elmers.

A large number of benefactors remain on the fence, according to party and campaign sources, using the meetings to grill candidates on the issues important to them. In the hallways, donors shared notes from their private meetings, gossiping about Walker’s flip-flop on immigration reform, the burdens of Bush’s family name and Christie’s narrowing path to the nomination.

One donor, who has pledged five-figure sums to groups affiliated with at least three GOP candidates, said he and many of his peers believe it’s still a wide-open field.

“You want to get in on the ground floor,” said the donor, who didn’t want his name used to avoid attracting more suitors, “and so many of these guys can go all the way.”

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