LAS VEGAS — Put a room full of hedge fund pros together to talk politics and chances are pretty good that it's going to be more fun to be Karl Rove than Robert Gibbs.
So it went Thursday morning when Rove, the top adviser to former President George W. Bush, and Gibbs, a top-level campaign guru and former White House press secretary for President Obama, squared off at the SALT conference. The few thousand hedge fund managers were noticeably more vocal in their support of Rove's position.
The conversation started off cordially enough, with the two fiery political veterans agreeing that the race between Obama and Republican Mitt Romneythis year would be a close one, with a handful of people in a handful of states determining the outcome.
Then they exchanged barbs about gay marriage, which the President said this week he favors, a position he essentially was forced to take after Vice President Joe Biden took the same view in a "Meet the Press" appearance Sunday.
"Biden put him in a bad place — as he often does," Rove said. The audience clapped.
Gibbs insisted the President's hand was not forced. The audience groaned.
And away they went.
The conversation quickly veered into why much of Wall Street perceives Obama as anti-business.
"We came in at a very tough time. We had to do some things and say some things as it pertains to banks that were in trouble," Gibbs explained. "I think there's no doubt that we've turned the corner. We're not all the way we want to be."
For Rove, operating in friendly territory, the time came to pounce.
First, he criticized Obama for the anti-bank rhetoric he has used over the years.
"He has too big a brush (with) which he tars everybody," Rove said, describing the Obama economic team as "a lot of academicians, a lot of lawyers, some people with experience in community organizing" but as a whole a group with less real-world experience than any of his predecessors.
Then he ripped into the so-called Buffett tax, a measure that failed in Congress and was targeted at millionaires and cited by Obama as a way to hack at the $1.3 trillion budget deficit, even though it would have raised just $47 billion over 10 years.
The moves were symptomatic of the way the President is trying to divide the country along class lines, Rove said.
"I just think that's wrong for the President of the United States to do, just wrong," he said to a loud ovation.
"I don't think that 'fairness' is at all a word of derision," Gibbs countered. "This is fundamentally going to be a race about who is best suited to protect the middle class."
Gibbs further chided Republicans, in particular a proposal from Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, for a two-tiered tax system proposal that Gibbs said lacked detail of how it would be achieved.
As the debate move on, things got more personal.
Gibbs took umbrage at a heated Rove accusation that Obama has not done enough to stop his supporters from using Romney's Mormon religion against him.
"It is galling to sit up here and insinuate that the President has somehow made religion part of the election," Gibbs said.
"The President has the ability to set the tone," said Rove, who called on Obama to return a $1 million donation from comedian, talk show host and fiercely atheist Bill Maher, who has repeatedly made fun of Romney's religious beliefs.
As for Rove's tone, the hedge funders who witnessed the debate got what they were looking for.
"He ought to be focused on growing the economy," Rove said in reference to Obama,
"not penalizing the people who are making it work."