Palin Allies Report Rising Campaign Tension
Even as John McCain and Sarah Palin scramble to close the gap in the final days of the 2008 election, stirrings of a Palin insurgency are complicating the campaign's already-tense internal dynamics.
Four Republicans close to Palin said she has decided increasingly to disregard the advice of the former Bush aides tasked to handle her, creating occasionally tense situations as she travels the country with them. Those Palin supporters, inside the campaign and out, said Palin blames her handlers for a botched rollout and a tarnished public image - even as others in McCain's camp blame the pick of the relatively inexperienced Alaska governor, and her public performance, for McCain's decline.
"She's lost confidence in most of the people on the plane," said a senior Republican who speaks to Palin, referring to her campaign jet. He said Palin had begun to "go rogue" in some of her public pronouncements and decisions.
"I think she'd like to go more rogue," he said.
The emergence of a Palin faction comes as Republicans gird for a battle over the future of their party: Some see her as a charismatic, hawkish conservative leader with the potential, still unrealized, to cross over to attract moderate voters. Anger among Republicans who see Palin as a star and as a potential future leader has boiled over because, they say, they see other senior McCain aides preparing to blame her in the event he is defeated.
"These people are going to try and shred her after the campaign to divert blame from themselves," a McCain insider said, referring to McCain's chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, and to Nicolle Wallace, a former Bush aide who has taken a lead role in Palin's campaign. Palin's partisans blame Wallace, in particular, for Palin's avoiding of the media for days and then giving a high-stakes interview to CBS News' Katie Couric, whose sometimes painful content the campaign allowed to be parceled out over a week.
"A number of Gov. Palin's staff have not had her best interests at heart, and they have not had the campaign's best interests at heart," the McCain insider fumed, noting that Wallace left an executive job at CBS to join the campaign.
Wallace declined to engage publicly in the finger-pointing that has consumed the campaign in the final weeks.
"I am in awe of [Palin's] strength under constant fire by the media," she said in an e-mail. "If someone wants to throw me under the bus, my personal belief is that the most graceful thing to do is to lie there."
But other McCain aides, defending Wallace, dismissed the notion that Palin was mishandled. The Alaska governor was, they argue, simply unready - "green," sloppy and incomprehensibly willing to criticize McCain for, for instance, not attacking Sen. Barack Obama for his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Palin has in fact performed fairly well in the moments thought to be key for a vice presidential nominee: She made a good impression in her surprise rollout in Ohio and her speech to the Republican National Convention went better than the campaign could have imagined. She turned in an adequate performance at a debate against the Democratic Party's foremost debater.
But other elements of her image-making went catastrophically awry. Her dodging of the press and her nervous reliance on tight scripts in her first interview, with ABC News, became a national joke - driven home to devastating effect by "Saturday Night Live" comic Tina Fey. The Couric interview - her only unstaged appearance for a week - was "water torture," as one internal ally put it.
Some McCain aides say they had little choice with a candidate who simply wasn't ready for the national stage, and that Palin didn't forcefully object. Moments that Palin's allies see as triumphs of instinct and authenticity - the Wright suggestion, her objection to the campaign's pulling out of Michigan - they dismiss as Palin's "slips and miscommunications," that is, her own incompetence and evidence of the need for tight scripting.
But Palin partisans say she chafed at the handling.
"The campaign as a whole bought completely into what the Washington media said - that she's completely inexperienced," said a close Palin ally outside the campaign who speaks regularly to the candidate.
"Her strategy was to be trustworthy and a team player during the convention and thereafter, but she felt completely mismanaged and mishandled and ill advised," the person said. "Recently, she's gone from relying on McCain advisers who were assigned to her to relying on her own instincts."
Palin's loyalists say she's grown particularly disenchanted with the veterans of the Bush reelection campaign, including Schmidt and Wallace, and that despite her anti-intellectual rhetoric, her closest ally among her new traveling aides is a policy adviser, former National Security Council official Steve Biegun. She's also said to be close with McCain's chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, who prepared her for the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate.
When a McCain aide, speaking anonymously Friday to The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, suggested that Palin's charge that Obama was "palling around with terrorists" had "escaped HQ's vetting," it was Scheunemann who fired off an angry response that the speech was "fully vetted" and that to attack Palin for it was "bullshit."
Palin's "instincts," on display in recent days, have had her opening up to the media, including a round of interviews on talk radio, cable and broadcast outlets, as well as chats with her traveling press and local reporters.
Reporters really began to notice the change last Sunday, when Palin strolled over to a local television crew in Colorado Springs.
"Get Tracey," a staffer called out, according to The New York Times, summoning spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt, who reportedly "tried several times to cut it off with a terse 'Thank you!' in between questions, to no avail." The moment may have caused ulcers in some precincts of the McCain campaign, but it was an account Palin's admirers in Washington cheered.
Palin had also sought to give meatier policy speeches, in particular on energy policy and on policy for children with disabilities; she finally gave the latter speech Friday, but had wanted to deliver it much earlier.
She's also begun to make her own ad hoc calls about the campaign's direction and the ticket's policy. McCain, for instance, has remained silent on Democrats' calls for a stimulus package of new spending, a move many conservatives oppose but that could be broadly popular. But in an interview with the conservative radio host Glenn Beck earlier this week, Palin went "off the reservation" to make the campaign policy, one aide said.
"I say, you know, when is enough enough of taxpayer dollars being thrown into this bill out there?" she asked. "This next one of the Democrats being proposed should be very, very concerning to all Americans because to me it sends a message that $700 billion bailout, maybe that was just the tip of the iceberg. No, you know, we were told when we've got to be believing if we have enough elected officials who are going to be standing strong on fiscal conservative principles and free enterprise and we have to believe that there are enough of those elected officials to say, 'No, OK, that's enough.'"
(A McCain spokeswoman said Palin's statement was "a good sentiment.")
But few imagine that Palin will be able to repair her image - and bad poll numbers - in the eleven days before the campaign ends. And the final straw for Palin and her allies was the news that the campaign had reported spending $150,000 on her clothes, turning her, again, into the butt of late-night humor.
"She never even set foot in these stores," the senior Republican said, noting Palin hadn't realized the cost when the clothes were brought to her in her Minnesota hotel room.
"It's completely out-of-control operatives," said the close ally outside the campaign. "She has no responsibility for that. It's incredibly frustrating for us and for her."
Between Palin's internal detractors and her allies, there's a middle ground: Some aides say that she's a flawed candidate whose handling exaggerated her weak spots.
"She was completely mishandled in the beginning. No one took the time to look at what her personal strengths and weaknesses are and developed a plan that made sense based on who she is as a candidate," the aide said. "Any concerns she or those close to her have about that are totally valid."
But the aide said that Palin's inexperience led her to her own mistakes:
"How she was handled allowed her weaknesses to hang out in full display."
If McCain loses, Palin's allies say that the national Republican Party hasn't seen the last of her. Politicians are sometimes formed by a signal defeat - as Bill Clinton was when he was tossed out of the Arkansas governor's mansion after his first term - and Palin would return to a state that had made her America's most popular governor and where her image as a reformer who swept aside her own party's insiders rings true, if not in the cartoon version the McCain campaign presented.
"There are people in this campaign who feel a real sense of loyalty to her and are really pleased with her performance and think she did a great job," said the McCain insider. "She has a real future in this party."