WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich learned his lesson last week, after holding a fundraiser in a glass atrium downtown and drawing scores of protesters from Occupy DC, who shivered in the rain outside his lavish party.
On Tuesday night, the Republican front-runner took another stab at wooing Beltway insiders. But this time, he and his guests were ensconced in a shrouded room in Georgetown's landmark, ultra-establishment haunt, Cafe Milano. No invitations were leaked to the press about the party, and a source told The Huffington Post that the campaign made a last-minute decision to hold it. In the end, however, despite all their attempts at secrecy, Gingrich couldn't help but glad-hand his way through the main dining room.
The reception began around 6:30 p.m., when more than 100 well-heeled guests, many of whom looked under 40, made their way to the storied Italian restaurant to rub elbows with Newt. By most measures, the venue was a great choice: the staff at Milano is known for their discretion. But it's been a strange few months for owner Franco Nuschese's classic hot spot: In October, news outlets reported that Cafe Milano was the intended target of an Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S., a man who used to dine there frequently.
But there was no sign of the recent intrigue on Tuesday, in fact, the only visible oddity in the busy restaurant was a wall of demi-sheer, cream colored curtains pulled over every one of the windows encasing the front room, and obsessively guarded by Milano waiters and Gingrich staff, who worked in shifts.
By around 8:15 p.m., flashbulbs were going off every few seconds inside the party, and an extra staff member was posted outside the only door, ostensibly to shut the curtain behind departing guests. Newt's wife, Callista Gingrich, was visible through the sheer fabric -- her telltale platinum blond hair cast in silhouette against the drapes.
But despite the campaign's best efforts, guests floated between the party and the buzzing, dimly-lit dining room, many still wearing their "Newt 2012" name tags, which were handwritten, suggesting Gingrich's staff may not have printed up a formal set of them. Above the bar, the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers trounced the Washington Capitals on TV, and a few Gingrich guests crowded together to watch the ice hockey. As the clock passed nine, the waiter-bouncers grew more lenient about who came and went.
Inside, Newt and Callista stood far away from the draped entrance, and in opposite corners of the room from each other. Both were spotted laughing heartily as they chatted with supporters -- something voters don't often get to see on the campaign trail.
In the crowded dining room, a few of the restaurant's clientele seemed confused about what was going on behind Newt's curtain. "Milano is a place you go to be seen!" said an elegant older woman, who was dining with a friend. "So why on earth would anyone draw a curtain?"
The short answer is likely twofold: Firstly, as a way to prevent Occupy Wall Street, or anyone else, from spoiling the fun, and secondly, to avoid having to answer the sticky question about who was there, and more importantly, who wasn't.
Gingrich currently lags well behind his closest rival, Mitt Romney, when it comes to financial support from Washington's wealthiest Republicans, several of whom live within a few blocks of Cafe Milano. During the course of the evening, HuffPost didn't see any notable figures emerge from Gingrich's makeshift tent, although the restaurant was packed with investment bankers, lobbyists and real estate tycoons, including multi-millionaire Mark Ein, one of the city's most eligible bachelors.
As the party carried on past nine, a few guests migrated to the bar, where several younger women sat. By 9:45 p.m., a guest told HuffPost that only young people were left inside the party, about 25 of them. That was about the same time that a loud, older man leaving Milano was overheard telling a woman, "Let me remind you, sweetheart, you're selling $750,000 of total value, and you paid three bucks for it."
Gingrich left the curtained enclave a little after 10 p.m. to speak with his staff, when a young woman who appeared to have crashed his party approached him and asked to have her photo taken. "Who are you?" Gingrich barked, seemingly on guard for saboteurs. The woman, a Republican voter, told Gingrich where she worked, and he quickly agreed to a photo.
"How could I ever say no to such a good-looking girl?" he asked her, grinning, as he turned and posed. Later, the woman told HuffPost Gingrich "held me really tight." Afterwards, Gingrich weaved his way through the crowded dining room, where his desire for privacy abandoned him. Before he got back to the party, Newt had stopped to greet at least four tables and take two photos.
Callista emerged from the tent just shy of 10:30 p.m., dressed in a black skirt suit she likes to wear on the campaign trail. This time however, she'd replaced her typical jewelry -- three rows of pearls -- with a dazzling diamond necklace, a fresh reminder of Newt's notorious credit lines at Tiffany & Co. After posing for more photos, Gingrich and his wife retired to a back corner table for dinner, accompanied by a handful of campaign staffers.
On Wednesday, the couple will travel to Iowa, where Newt leads GOP primary polls less that a month from the state's Republican caucus. There, they will attend a movie screening hosted by former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a pro-life documentary called "Gift Of Life." The evening promises to be an interesting scene, albeit far from Cafe Milano's marble bar and vintage wines. Instead, fellow GOP candidates Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry will all be there, no doubt eager to challenge Newt's lead among Iowa's powerful Christian conservatives.
SLIDESHOW: Newt and Callista's big night in Georgetown
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