Christine Stuart photo

STAMFORD — The backdrop for the biggest Republican Party fundraiser of the year was the indictment of former Republican governor and WTIC talk show host John G. Rowland.

Despite the whispers about how “sad” it was that Rowland would find himself under federal indictment for the second time in 10 years, Republicans tried to celebrate what was great about their party and also tried to distance themselves from the former governor.

“While there may be great fascination in this story, the fact is John Rowland has no connection to the Connecticut Republican Party nor has he for over 10 years,” Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. said in a statement.

Many acknowledged the indictment and shared the same sentiment as state Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, who was co-chairman of the impeachment panel in 2004 — a panel that never completed its work because Rowland opted to resign.

O’Neill said he was surprised, not so much at the news Thursday about the seven count indictment, but that it had happened again.

“He’s the best retail politician I’ve ever known,” O’Neill said. “It’s a shame that such a talent is being wasted.”

Ross Garber, who was Rowland’s chief legal counsel in 2004 when he resigned before the first federal indictment, declined to comment on Rowland’s current situation.

Christine Stuart photo

Joe Visconti of West Hartford, who is running for governor, said there are a lot of good Republicans out there and he feels that some are underestimating the courage it took for Mark Greenberg and Mike Clark, a former FBI agent and congressional candidate, to come forward.

“We can’t go back. We have to go forward,” Visconti said. “John knew better.”

In his remarks to the more than 800 Republicans in attendance, Labriola tried to shift the focus to Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

“There should be no question Connecticut’s economy is owned by Gov. Dan Malloy and this election will be a referendum on Dan Malloy’s economy,” Labriola said.

Most of the Republican candidates for governor were seated at the head table.

Mark Greenberg, who is running again for the Republican nomination in the 5th Congressional District and played a prominent role in the Rowland indictment for turning down a similar consulting deal back in 2010, declined to comment on the situation.

“I really can’t talk about this at this time. I’m here at the Bush dinner and I’m here with my wife and I’d like to celebrate at this time,” Greenberg said.

But Bill Evans, Greenberg’s campaign manager, sent out a statement after the dinner.

“We are sensitive to the fact that this is part of an ongoing criminal investigation,” Evans said. “At this point Mark has offered all the information he knows as it relates to former governor John Rowland. He is confident in the U.S. Attorney’s office’s [ability] to handle this matter appropriately.”

At the dinner, two-time candidate for U.S. Senate Linda McMahon received the Prescott Bush award, named after Jeb Bush’s grandfather.

Christine Stuart photo

McMahon, who spent and raised more than $100 million on two failed campaigns, pointed out that in order to be successful as a party Republicans must unite.

“Democrats are counting on Republicans to stay divided,” McMahon said. “Tea Party vs. RINO. But if we want to achieve the higher goals we agree on, we have to work not just across the aisle but within our own side of the aisle.”

Bush, the former Florida governor, said everyone but President Barack Obama and his supporters know entitlement reform is necessary.

“There’s no way to invest in the long-term things that create sustained economic growth unless we begin to be grown up about our entitlement system,” Bush said. “We’ll have to wait until President Obama leaves the stage, but we’ll have to be real with the American people that this is not sustainable.”

Christine Stuart photo

He said Obamacare must be repealed and replaced and Republicans have a “huge opportunity,” rather than a problem, in immigration reform.

“There is no conflict between enforcing our laws, believing in the rule of law, and having some sensitivity to the immigrant experience, which is a part of who we are as a country,” Bush said.

He said perpetuating a situation that’s broken will not solve the country’s problems.

“Never, never bet against American innovation to solve problems,” Bush said.

Bush offered a message to the party’s gubernatorial candidates: “When you get control be big. Be bold. Change the system. Make it child-centered. Focus on the learning gains of each and every child. Break up the monopolies. More school choice, higher standards, more accountability.”

He said the one thing Republicans need to focus on is winning because winning matters.

“Making a point is not as important anymore as winning,” he added.

He joked that there were a whole lot of Connecticut residents in his home state of Florida.

“And you can’t blame them, because you all may be coming, too, sooner or later, unless you elect a Republican Governor,” Bush said.