WASHINGTON -- As Occupy Wall Street protesters chanted and cheered in driving rain outside the Willard Hotel Wednesday night, Newt Gingrich served his political patrons baby "lollipop" lamb chops on silver platters inside. It was his first big D.C. fundraiser since he began leading the GOP presidential primary, and tickets cost $1,000 a person. The venue, however, a big, brightly lit, two-story glass atrium, proved an especially regrettable choice.
The first protesters pressed their noses to the glass just shy of 7 p.m., prompting Gingrich's Rent-A-Santa to pack up her (yes, her) poster-sized Christmas list and scurry inside on her stilettos. Guards quickly locked the doors behind her.
For the next hour, Newt and his 50 or so guests -- mostly young men and middle-aged couples -- huddled like penguins around a 20-foot Christmas tree at the center of the room. A few brave souls walked up to the glass to take photos of the protesters, but most people just milled around in a tiny circle and kept their eyes on the floor, Gingrich included. Anything, it seemed, to avoid making eye contact with the cold, wet 99 percent.
For many of these people, Newt's party, as seen through the glass walls, was a sort of tableau vivant of 'the one percent,' real life confined to a tiny stage. But it wasn't the only awkward political overlap Gingrich had in the Willard last night.
As Newt wooed rich Republicans in the atrium, the conservative Legacy Political Fund was busy doing the exact same thing a few hundred feet away with the help of (surprise!) Michele Bachmann. The presidential hopeful was caught on camera hobnobbing with donors to the Legacy in a hallway on the ground floor of the hotel, just as guests began arriving for Newt's event.
But there's another, bigger problem with Bachmann's appearance at Legacy on Wednesday: The group's founder, millionaire George Seay III, is already committed to yet a third Republican presidential candidate: Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And he's not just committed -- Seay is the Texas finance chairman for Perry's campaign, as well as his chief bundler.
For Perry, this has to sting, right? When your top bundler and your rival meet with rich evangelical Christian conservatives without you? The Huffington Post reached out to Perry's campaign for clarification about the Bachmann appearance, but no word yet.
Going forward, the best-case scenario is likely that Bachmann just happened to drop by, and that Perry had been invited but was unavailable. Worst-case scenario is that Seay's support is dwindling now that Perry has dropped from upstart presidential front-runner to well-funded long-shot. A spokeswoman for the Legacy did not return a call from HuffPost seeking comment.
However she arrived, to see Bachmann chatting casually in the Willard hallway, leaning against a door frame dressed in a red top and dark pants with her hair down, one was reminded of what made Bachmann a star in the first place -- how approachable and easy to relate to she is for people -- qualities that don't necessarily convey well on the presidential debate stage. Bachmann has a reputation for candor on Capitol Hill, but only as long as the topics are on her terms. Among the Legacy donors Wednesday night, they certainly were, and the congresswoman looked especially at ease.
All of which is little consolation for Rick Perry, whose absence is now the story. But Perry wasn't the only conspicuous absence at the Willard last night. Newt's party in the atrium was also missing something, and it wasn't just curtains to hide the teeming masses.
According to a staff member who worked closely on the event, the catering order at the swanky Occidental Grill, which is connected to the atrium, was for food, drinks, linens, glasses and other staples for "120 to 130 people."
The actual turnout, however, was about half that size -- 50 people, give or take, according to an informal headcount. Equally telling for the former House speaker was how very few members of Congress attended the event. HuffPost spotted only two current lawmakers, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). Both were listed as hosts on the invitation. Garnering endorsements from Congress has been a special challenge for Newt, whose ten years in the House ended bitterly when he was forced to resign both his speakership and his seat in the wake of widespread losses in 1998.
But this being Washington, former House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), one of those who worked hardest to force Gingrich out of office, was a co-host of the party, and told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he backs Gingrich for president.
One protester noticed Livingston, now a lobbyist, as he walked through the glass wall and into the party, "That guy?!" he exclaimed. "You cannot be serious!"