Interviews with Alaska and Washington-based GOP political professionals who are familiar with the Palin operation describe the governor’s team as a gang that couldn’t shoot straight, a staff whose failure to execute basic political maneuvers too often entangles the governor in awkward and embarrassing situations that could have easily been avoided.
The state of confusion is compounded by two separate Palin spheres that don’t communicate with each other, one based in the governor’s office and another based in the D.C.-area, where Palin’s political action committee is located—and the incongruous presence of a high-profile Democratic trial lawyer among her political advisers.
The lawyer, John Coale, is a former supporter of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign who became a Palin confidante as his wife, Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, interviewed the former GOP vice presidential nominee and her family numerous times during and after the election.
Their presence around Palin has become Topic A among many of her allies as well as other Republican insiders who are mystified as to why an anti-abortion rights conservative who ran against Washington elites is now turning to a pair of capital insiders for counsel.
A well-heeled personal injury lawyer, Coale has been a major Democratic donor. It was his suggestion that Palin create a PAC to pay for travel and avoid ethics complaints in Alaska.
Coale told POLITICO he first met Palin during his wife’s taping of a September interview with the Alaska governor and explained that he was “extremely pissed off at the way Hillary was treated” and believed Palin was being subjected to the same “sexist” treatment. Coale ultimately endorsed McCain in the 2008 campaign.
“I’m just a friend of hers. I’m not on her staff and I’m not paid,” Coale insisted.
He said he and Palin “email back and forth about once a week.”
A former Palin aide said Coale “was positioning himself for this gig from the first interview,” always there with his wife when she would sit for what were invariably friendly sessions with the governor.
Another former Palin ally still in touch with the governor was blunt when asked to explain Palin’s missteps since the election: “Taking advice from Greta and her husband,” said this source.
Because of Van Susteren’s success in booking Palin appearances on her show, the Fox News host has faced questions about her husband’s role with Palin.
“I am getting lots of inquires about my husband John Coale — no, he is not a paid adviser to Governor Palin and never has been,” Van Susteren wrote on her blog recently. “He met her through me when I interviewed her….I did not meet her through him. I have gotten interviews with her not through him but through our staff on [her show]. It is that simple.”
Several aides and allies from inside and outside last year’s presidential campaign complain of being frozen out by the Alaska governor’s staff and even those who are still in touch with the governor suggest her string of unforced errors are the direct result of having nobody around her to offer sound political advice.
Jason Recher, who traveled with Palin throughout the campaign and remains in touch with her, chalked up some mishaps as a result of the governor's overabundance of caution concerning the ethics of mixing political and official activities.
But Recher, a veteran of both terms in the Bush White House, indicated he shared the concerns of other Palin allies.
“Nobody from the campaign who I am in touch with knows whois at the PAC, who is really staffing it or what exactly it does,” he said.
Like the others, Recher said he was speaking out for somebody he grew close to last fall.
“I may not be in the loop on the strategy going on right now but I totally buy into the notion of Sarah Palin,” he said.
Palin has endured numerous bruising trips through recent news cycles.
There was the infamous YouTube turkey video in November where, unbeknownst to Palin, live turkeys were slaughtered just behind her within the camera frame.
Then came a flap over remarks she made to a filmmaker in January. In February, conservatives were confused by her last-minute no-show at a key movement event. Most recently, Capitol Hill Republicans were left scratching their heads over a bizarre miscommunication between her office and the two national party committees.
In that case, Palin, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee all were left with egg on their faces.
The NRSC and the NRCC, it seems, were under the distinct impression that Palin would headline the annual Republican House-Senate fundraising dinner in June. The committees went so far as to issue a joint press release trumpeting her appearance and national news outlets quickly noted her prime speaking engagement.
All of it was news to Palin, though. When the Anchorage Daily News called for comment, Palin spokesman Bill McAllister said the governor didn’t know anything about the event. The national committees, meanwhile, explained that Palin’s appearance had been confirmed by SarahPAC, Palin’s Virginia-based political action committee.
“It has been painful to watch the staff handling of her since the election,” said one former aide and loyalist. “There is small margin of error at this point.”
“She is great, but she is ill-served by a staff that is clearly in over their heads,” added a national Republican operative who has worked with Palin.
The NRCC-NRSC dust-up followed on the heels of a similar misfire involving the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. There, Palin had been slated for months to appear only to back out shortly before the event, leaving bruised feelings among organizers who thought they had a firm commitment from Palin herself. “There had been an agreement that she would come for about six months ahead of CPAC,” said a CPAC source. “They even agreed to what she was talking about.”
SarahPAC spokeswoman Meg Stapleton disagreed with that account, saying that Palin never agreed to appear and that Palin’s camp was surprised when CPAC announced the governor would be speaking at the event.
The governor, of course, ultimately bears responsibility for assembling a top-flight political team and ensuring it works in harmony. Still, friendly Republicans repeatedly singled out her inner circle for fault, noting that the blunders are emblematic of a team that is trying to straddle the line between Palin’s state duties and national ambitions.
“These people are amateurs. Palin is now a national figure and she can’t afford to have a junior varsity staff,” said a Republican operative who has worked with the Palin camp and speaks highly of the governor’s abilities.
Palin herself has made the problem worse, allowing Van Susteren to interview daughter Bristol, a month-and-a-half after the unwed 18-year-old gave birth. (The younger Palin declared in the interview that abstinence was “not realistic at all” – a statement that didn’t go over well with the governor’s conservative Christian admirers).
She crossed four time zones to attend Washington’s Alfalfa Dinner, a social gathering of the very political elites she spent much of the campaign blasting, yet skipped three opportunities to come to the Lower 48 to address policy-focused evnts – a House GOP retreat, CPAC and the National Governor’s Association Winter Meeting.
Her allies note that avoiding nationally-oriented events would be understandable if Palin wanted to take a lower profile. But since the election she has shown few signs of wanting to withdraw from the national scene.
Even more confusing, Palin and her advisers have done little to promote her substantive ideas instead leaving a vacuum that has been filled by a voracious media still hungry for stories about the governor and her family.
“My impression is that she’s not much in touch with the conservatives in Washington you would expect her to be talking to her,” said one of her most outspoken and well-known advocates.
Several Republicans singled out the divide between Palin’s Alaska staff and her national staff at SarahPAC as a prime contributing factor in an already dysfunctional situation.
Palin’s state message operation is headed by McAllister, the state employee who serves as her press secretary, and is made up almost entirely of staffers who began working for the governor prior to her vice presidential run. Part of the problem, observers say, is that her Alaska staff is focused on state matters and is resistant to efforts to build the Palin brand nationally.
Another factor, said a former aide from the campaign, is Palin’s loyalty to her state team and her wariness of D.C.-types because “she felt burned” by her handling and the subsequent leaks from McCain staffers.
McAllister did not return several calls asking for comment.
SarahPAC focuses precisely on building the national Palin brand. The PAC is staffed by several Washington hands as well as Stapleton, who serves as Palin’s national spokeswoman from Alaska—just as she did during the presidential campaign.
It is officially headed by Becki Donatelli, formerly the lead Internet consultant for the McCain campaign.
Between SarahPAC and the governor’s office, said one Washington-based Republican operative, “too many people think they speak for Sarah Palin when they don’t. She shouldn’t get the rap for this.”
Some who are familiar with the inner workings of Palin-land dismiss criticism of her inner circle as overblown.
“I never had the slightest difficulty with any of the Alaska staff. I found them to be very professional and very politically astute about the politics of their state,” said George Rasley, who worked alongside Palin’s Alaska staff as the governor’s lead advance representative during the presidential campaign. “The people who are making these complaints have a strange way of voicing their alliance to her.”
Yet even those outside the political arena have noticed that the governor’s operation doesn’t always seem to fire on all cylinders.
Conservative filmmaker John Ziegler, who interviewed Palin for his film, “Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted,” said it was also his impression was that state and national teams were not operating in sync.
Ziegler’s film stirred controversy for Palin after he released interview excerpts on the film’s website prior to its release.
The excerpts, which included her comments on Caroline Kennedy and CBS anchor Katie Couric, generated a media frenzy that led McAllister to blame Ziegler for blindsiding Palin.
But Palin herself didn’t seem to mind, calling the filmmaker that weekend to express her support in a nearly half-hour phone conversation, according to Ziegler.
“In my situation, I communicated what I was going to do with the Palin interview with the person I was told to go through, but the political and state arms were not working together and it created a huge communication gap that led to an unfortunate misunderstanding that was blamed on me but which was in no way my fault,” he said.