It's a little after six o'clock on a cold Friday night at the Inner Harbor's Hard Rock Café, where dozens of anxious teens and their parents have gathered around the stage adjacent to the guitar-shaped bar. Rock legends like Paul McCartney and Roy Orbison play on flat screens around the restaurant, but these kids have a much younger legend on their minds: Justin Bieber.
Bieber isn't in town, but his music is headlining. Thirty girls and one boy, ages 13 to 17, came to sing the mop-topped mini pop star's hits for a chance to win a trip for three to the Los Angeles premier of his new concert movie, Never Say Never, opening Valentine's Day weekend.
Contestants take turns performing for three judges, including Lisa Mathews of local kids band Milkshake, Paul Manna of 24-7 Entertainment, and Sarah Quackenbush of Pivec Advertising. Patrons watch, some amused, some annoyed, as the teens' voices fill the restaurant.
One girl clutches a Bieber doll. Another totes a life-size cutout of him onstage to observe her performance. Some stand like stone before the judges. Others flip their hair and shake their adolescent hips. And while only one, 15-year-old Alyssa Shouse, can win the grand prize, it's clear that Bieber Fever is alive and well in Charm City.
It's only been 10 days since the new U.S. House of Representatives was sworn in—led, for the first time in four years, by the GOP—and the House Republican Conference has come to the Baltimore Waterfront Marriott for a retreat to discuss priorities and strategy.
The annual event got heaps of media attention last year, when President Obama came to address the conference and answer contentious questions about his health care reform bill. The mood is considerably more subdued this year, not only because the President is absent, but because it comes just five days after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona, was shot and seriously injured at an event in Tucson.
The representatives trickled into town Thursday, and some toured Fort McHenry in the afternoon. Friday morning, several Capitol Police cars are stationed in front of the hotel, and a Capitol policeman greets passersby approaching from President Street.
At 11 a.m., attendees are trickling out of the hotel's third floor ballroom following a presentation by former House speaker and potential presidential contender Newt Gingrich.
Despite the high-profile guest list, which also includes former Sen. Phil Gramm and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the representatives are dressed down, with many wearing sweaters instead of suits.
Tom Rooney, who represents Florida's 16th District, is wearing a warm-up jacket and jeans when he stops to brief a few reporters on the content of Gingrich's presentation—which, like all sessions during the retreat, was closed to the press.
"It was about how we keep from being complacent about where we are now, and how we move forward and get even more of a majority in the House and win the Senate and the White House," he says.
But overall, says Rooney, in the wake of the attack on Rep. Giffords, attendees are thinking more about their commonalities with Democratic colleagues than their differences.
"I think we've all been reminded over the last week how the friendships that we build as members of Congress transcend party lines," says Rooney, adding that Giffords sits behind him in Armed Services Committee hearings and he always considered her "a nice person." "There's a common bond that we all have."