JEROME, Arizona (CNN) – Many weekends, Sen. John McCain takes advantage of the prolonged battle for the Democratic nomination between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama by heading to his home in Arizona to relax and get away from the glare of the media.
But not this weekend. Reporters set up camp outside the presumptive nominee’s Sedona ranch to catch a glimpse of the potential running mates McCain invited over to celebrate the Memorial Day weekend.
Saturday afternoon, McCain and his high profile guests piled into vans and SUVs for a short drive to lunch at the nearby hilltop Jerome Grand Hotel.
Joining McCain and wife Cindy for lunch were former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, Sen. Sam Brownback, Sen. Lindsey Graham, FedEx founder Fred Smith, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, and senior McCain adviser Charlie Black.
Sen. Joe Lieberman is also visiting the ranch but didn’t appear at the lunch. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota were invited along for the weekend but had scheduling conflicts.
Dressed in casual weekend gear, the party dined on calamari, steak sandwiches, and burgers at the hotel’s restaurant, The Asylum. The hotel, formerly a hospital, is rumored to be haunted.
Speculation continues to swirl over whether this outing is in fact an audition for potential vice presidential nominees, among them, Romney, Jindal and Crist, who are believed to be on McCain’s shortlist. Both the campaign and the candidate have repeatedly denied it is such gathering, saying it is simply a weekend among friends and a chance for the McCains to thank the guests for their support.
During lunch, the McCains sat with Sen. Brownback and his wife, and Gov. Crist and a companion, while the rest of the guests spread out at three other tables.
McCain picked up the tab for the group and appeared noticeably irritated by the abundance of press when leaving the restaurant. But that didn’t spoil the meal for the Florida governor, who remarked that lunch was “delicious.”