In her new book, former Alaska Gov.. Sarah Palin describes the push-and-pull between John McCain's campaign headquarters and her plucky "B" team on the road. As Palin recounts it, her natural instincts to reach real voters and reach out to the press were frequently foiled by an overprotective senior staff, led by strategist Steve Schmidt, that did not trust her.
Palin acknowledges "going rogue" at points - but usually to positive effect, such as the time she rewrote a speech to special needs children or her wondering out loud about "why I was prohibited from calling the other ticket out on more of its strange associations."
At one point, Palin criticizes the campaign for forcing her to spend too much time glad-handing donors and local elected officials. "Why couldn't we focus more attention on the everyday folks who attended our rallies," she asks.
Interviews with staff, and e-mails obtained from a former McCain campaign aide and confirmed as authentic by several recipients, add some layers to Palin's description of life on the road.
As the campaign came to a climax in October, Palin isolated herself from headquarters, refusing to communicate with them directly. Her staff, suspicious that McCain's retinue of lieutenants were trying to sabotage Palin simply because she was Palin, began to skirmish with McCain's staff, bollixing up carefully planned events. At the same time, it seems clear that McCain's senior staff evinced little sympathy for how tough a 24/7 presidential campaign can be on a mom with a day job.
Tension reached a boil on Wednesday, October 15, the start of a two-day trip to New Hampshire. Scheduled events that day included a radio call in to a national conservative talk show host, Mike Gallagher, at least two local print interviews, a one-on-one TV interview with Manchester's WMUR-TV, a rally in Laconia, an "off the record" event in Concord. A rally in Salem capped off the evening. Then Palin would retire to a hotel in Manchester to watch McCain debate Barack Obama.
Palin would wake up that morning in New York. A few days before the trip, Palin decided that she wanted to slough off some of the local interviews and spend the morning cooking with Rachel Ray, the host of a popular syndicated television program.
She instructed a top aide to inform headquarters that the Dover rally would have to be canceled.
The response from McCain's headquarters was firm: absolutely not.
"She says she wanted interviews [with the press], but pushed back against the interviews that were scheduled," a campaign aide who worked with Palin said.
When Palin's advance team arrived to plan the events with New Hampshire campaign staff, shouting matches arose. Palin's team balked at allowing former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci to shake Palin's hand as she exited the campaign bus. A Palin advance staffer interrogated one of the campaign's senior political officials about Cellucci's intentions; three rounds of "permissions" later, and Cellucci was finally allowed to have his handshake. In Palin's defense, her plane was 45 minutes late in arriving to New Hampshire, which compacted the schedule. Accounts differ as to whether the delay was caused by a scheduling snafu from headquarters.
A top campaign planner e-mailed headquarters: " We worked for many days on the programs taking into consideration all the political implications and working with advance to get everything flowing smoothly. Then, at literally the last minute, for 3 of the 4 events, someone with some apparent authority calls our advance on the ground and fucks everything up."
That someone was identified as Jason Recher, Palin's head of advance, a ten-year veteran of the Bush political operation who had become increasingly loyal to his new charge. In her book, Palin lavishes praise on Recher.
Palin wasn't fond of letting outsiders on her campaign bus, and Recher reportedly vetoed a ride-along with Schonda Schilling, the wife of Boston Red Sox player Curt Schilling. Carla Eudy, the campaign's chief fundraiser, had added Schilling on the passenger manifest for the ride from Laconia to Salem. But at the last minute, Schilling was told that she wouldn't be able to ride the bus and had to find her own transpiration to Salem.
At that night's "off the record" event in Concord, the campaign prepared for a normal sized crowd to hang with Palin in a shoe store. The television visuals would be cute - an acknowledgement of the shoe-leather life of a candidate. But a half before Palin was scheduled to arrive, an advance staffer called ahead, panicked, and demanded that the field staff find more people to show up. McCain aides had to borrow from a nearby phone bank and managed to fill the store with ten minutes to spare. The OTR had turned into a campaign event.
"This has so far resulted in pissing off two United States Senators and the creation of a total cluster which has reflected very poorly on the campaign," was how one staffer contemporaneously described it.
Recher, in an interview, described the chronology as false.
Of the e-mails and the attempts by McCain advisers to rebut Palin's account of the campaign, said Recher: "Maybe the McCain aides would have been better served trying to get McCain's positive message out and less time clustering away e-mails like squirrels before winter This anonymousness... is not in the John McCain spirit."
He notes that Palin requested from the campaign a certain amount of down time each day to tend to her children or to the business or her day job as Governor of Alaska. That day, the "down time" was coincident with the motorcades to and from Salem, New Hampshire. "She wanted to be respectful to her hosts, but she also wanted to focus on her job as governor, because it was in John McCain's interest for her to do well in that job," Recher said.
As for the "OTR" at the shoe store, Recher said the entire account was fabricated. "The notion that I would call to assemble a crowd at a shoe store is false," he said.
By late October, Palin and headquarters staff were communicating through intermediates.
On October 26, after a long day of stumping in North Carolina, Palin issued an edict to her traveling staff.
"We were informed today that she no longer wishes to do talk radio interviews in the car. It's too distracting," wrote a senior Palin adviser, in an e-mail to senior headquarters staffers. "We were informed today that she no longer wishes to do TV or print interviews post-rally. She's drained. We were informed of her displeasure that her host and US Senator Richard Burr was allowed to ride the [Straight Talk Express II] with her. "
He ended the e-mail: "I don't know what else to tell you."
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Marc Ambinder is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.