Tensions between McCain and Palin camps come to light

Workers pack up the McCain-Palin campaign headquarters in Anchorage. Aides to McCain on Wednesday disclosed new details about Palin’s expensive wardrobe purchases and other conflicts.
(Al Grillo / Associated Press)

Sarah Palin left the national stage Wednesday, but the controversy over her role on the ticket flared as aides to John McCain disclosed new details about her expensive wardrobe purchases and revealed that a Republican Party lawyer would be dispatched to Alaska to inventory and retrieve the clothes still in her possession.

Tensions have simmered for much of the last month between aides loyal to McCain and those loyal to Palin, but they boiled over after the Republican nominee’s defeat, as both sides spoke freely -- though anonymously -- about the wardrobe controversy and other conflicts.

An article on Thursday in Section A about tensions between aides loyal to Sen. John McCain and those loyal to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin erred in referring to communication between the camps regarding a telephone interview Palin had with a Canadian comedian who pretended to be French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The story should have said, “McCain aides said the Palin camp did not notify McCain’s senior staff or the State Department about the supposed contact.” The word “not” was erroneously left out.

Two aides to McCain and two to Palin discussed the tensions but asked that their names not be revealed, saying they were not comfortable speaking openly about internal operations.

The miscommunication and quarrels between the two camps lasted into Tuesday night, said McCain aides familiar with the situation. Palin arrived at the Arizona Biltmore planning to deliver a speech before McCain’s concession speech, they said, but was told by senior McCain aides Steve Schmidt and Mark Salter that it would not be appropriate.

Fox News reported Wednesday that Palin’s lack of knowledge on some topics also strained relations. Carl Cameron reported that campaign sources told him Palin had resisted coaching before her faltering Katie Couric interviews; did not understand that Africa was a continent rather than a country; and could not name the three nations that are part of the North American Free Trade Agreement -- the United States, Canada and Mexico.

For weeks, the McCain-Palin campaign has dealt with the fallout from the disclosure that the Republican National Committee was billed for $150,000 in wardrobe purchases for the Palin family -- a discovery that was widely ridiculed and undercut Palin’s hockey mom appeal.

Several McCain aides said they had recently discovered that Palin’s traveling staff had used personal credit cards to spend as much as $20,000 to $30,000 on additional wardrobe items for Palin.

Palin and her press aides were traveling back to Alaska on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment. But one aide earlier told Newsweek: “Gov. Palin was not directing staffers to put anything on their personal credit cards, and anything that staffers put on their credit cards has been reimbursed, like an expense.”

The original $150,000 in purchases was revealed in late October after the release of the September and October Federal Election Commission filings by the Republican National Committee. Those reports revealed that more than $75,062.63 was spent at Neiman Marcus, $49,425.74 at Saks Fifth Avenue and $5,102.71 at Bloomingdale’s around the time of the Republican National Convention in early September.

The campaign has said that many of those clothes were returned.

But McCain aides said Wednesday that spending on Palin’s wardrobe continued well after the convention, with one custom-made outfit showing up around the time of her “Saturday Night Live” appearance on Oct. 18.

As first reported by Newsweek on Wednesday, McCain aides said some of that money was spent on clothing for Palin’s children and husband, Todd, who may have received between $20,000 and $40,000 in wardrobe purchases. The money also included thousands of dollars in shoes. Several aides also said the items included jewelry, but a Palin aide disputed that.

Top McCain aides Schmidt, Rick Davis and Nicolle Wallace were flabbergasted by the magnitude of the spending as the receipts began trickling into the Republican National Committee, aides said.

Wallace had arranged for a stylist to shop for Palin before the convention because the Alaska governor did not have a chance to return home after she was selected as McCain’s running mate.

Aides familiar with the campaign’s internal discussions said Wallace and other top aides authorized the purchase of three outfits for Palin to wear during convention week and three ensembles for the campaign trail. But cost was to be kept to no more than $25,000 to $35,000.

When Schmidt learned that Palin’s staff was putting clothing purchases on personal credit cards, aides said he called them to stop it.

Palin aides tell a different story. Several close to the governor said Wednesday that Palin was outraged by the amount of money being spent on her clothing and that she was naive about what the clothes cost.

“The very first day of shopping, there was a $14,000 price tag and . . . she was absolutely shocked,” one of the Palin aides said.

Palin was not pleased by what had been selected for her, the aide said, adding that “a lot of that stuff that was purchased was never worn by her -- that was by her choice.”

When the shopping spree hit the press, she appeared frustrated, telling audiences that she wears a lot of her own clothing and hadn’t asked for the lavish purchases.

Resentments had started to brew earlier. Palin was not comfortable with the team of handlers sent by party headquarters to manage her appearances, and there were frequent conflicts between the staff at headquarters and her traveling staff. Palin felt constrained by the fact that she had little decision-making power, and questioned the directions being given to her by the campaign, an aide said.

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Palin denied that there were tensions with the McCain camp. But that is at odds with accounts from aides on both sides. The strain worsened, the aides said, after Palin was recorded talking to a Canadian comedian who pretended to be French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Campaign staffers said McCain’s top aides were blindsided by the call, which they said was approved by Palin foreign policy aide Steve Biegun.

McCain aides said the Palin camp did notify McCain’s senior staff or the State Department about the supposed contact. Outraged, Schmidt organized a conference call. He demanded to know who had arranged the call, and questioned why anyone would have agreed to such an unusual request and then failed to clear it with top staff, McCain aides said.

Biegun immediately took responsibility. In an interview Wednesday, he said some aides at McCain headquarters were in fact aware of the call, and that it had been on the schedule for “a couple days.”

“I was fooled,” he said. “No one’s going to beat me up more than I beat myself up for setting up the governor like that.”

Reston and Mehta are Times staff writers.