As a top adviser in Senator John McCain’s now-imploded campaign tells the story, it was bad enough that Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska unwittingly scheduled, and then took, a prank telephone call from a Canadian comedian posing as the president of France. Far worse, the adviser said, she failed to inform her ticketmate about her rogue diplomacy.
As a senior adviser in the Palin campaign tells the story, the charge is absurd. The call had been on Ms. Palin’s schedule for three days and she should not have been faulted if the McCain campaign was too clueless to notice.
Whatever the truth, one thing is certain. Ms. Palin, who laughingly told the prankster that she could be president “maybe in eight years,” was the catalyst for a civil war between her campaign and Mr. McCain’s that raged from mid-September up until moments before Mr. McCain’s concession speech on Tuesday night. By then, Ms. Palin was in only infrequent contact with Mr. McCain, top advisers said.
“I think it was a difficult relationship,” said one top McCain campaign official, who, like almost all others interviewed, asked to remain anonymous. “McCain talked to her occasionally.”
But Mr. McCain’s advisers also described him as admiring of Ms. Palin’s political skills. He was aware of the infighting, they said, but it is unclear how much he was inclined or able to stop it.
The tensions and their increasingly public airing provide a revealing coda to the ill-fated McCain-Palin ticket, hinting at the mounting turmoil of a campaign that was described even by many Republicans as incoherent, negative and badly run.
For her part, Ms. Palin told reporters in Arizona on Wednesday morning that “there is absolutely no diva in me.”
Later in the day, she refused to address the strife within the campaigns. “I have absolutely no intention of engaging in any of the negativity because this has been all positive for me,” she said, adding that it was time to savor President-elect Barack Obama’s victory and “not let the pettiness or maybe internal workings of a campaign erode any of the recognition of this historic moment.”
As the ticketmate with a potentially brighter political future, Ms. Palin has more at stake going forward than Mr. McCain, whose aides now have an interest in blaming outside factors for their loss, making Ms. Palin a tempting target. And even as the votes from the election were still being counted, there were new recriminations, with Mr. McCain’s aides suggesting that a Palin aide had leaked damaging information about them to reporters.
The tensions were described in interviews with top aides to the two campaigns who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be seen as disloyal to Mr. McCain’s effort at a difficult time.
Finger-pointing at the end of a losing campaign is traditional and to a large degree predictable, as Mr. McCain himself acknowledged in a prescient interview in July.
“Every book I’ve read about a campaign is that the one that won, it was a perfect and beautifully run campaign with geniuses running it and incredible messaging, etcetera,” Mr. McCain said then. “And always the one that lost, ‘Oh, completely screwed up, too much infighting, bad people, etcetera.’ So if I win, I believe that historians will say, ‘Way to go, he fine-tuned that campaign, and he got the right people in the right place and as the campaign grew, he gave them more responsibility.’ If I lose,” people will say, “ ‘That campaign, always in disarray.’ ”
The disputes between the campaigns centered in large part on the Republican National Committee’s $150,000 wardrobe for Ms. Palin and her family, but also on what McCain advisers considered Ms. Palin’s lack of preparation for her disastrous interview with Katie Couric of CBS News and her refusal to take advice from Mr. McCain’s campaign.
But behind those episodes may be a greater subtext: anger within the McCain camp that Ms. Palin harbored political ambitions beyond 2008.
As late as Tuesday night, a McCain adviser said, Ms. Palin was pushing to deliver her own speech just before Mr. McCain’s concession speech, even though vice-presidential nominees do not traditionally speak on election night. But Ms. Palin met up with Mr. McCain with text in hand. She was told no by Mark Salter, one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers, and Steve Schmidt, Mr. McCain’s top strategist.
On Wednesday, two top McCain campaign advisers said that the clothing purchases for Ms. Palin and her family were a particular source of outrage for them. As they portrayed it, Ms. Palin had been advised by Nicolle Wallace, a senior McCain aide, that she should buy three new suits for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in September and three additional suits for the fall campaign. The budget for the clothes was anticipated to be from $20,000 to $25,000, the officials said.
Instead, in a public relations debacle undermining Ms. Palin’s image as an everywoman “hockey mom,” bills came in to the Republican National Committee for about $150,000, including charges of $75,062 at Neiman Marcus and $49,425 at Saks Fifth Avenue. The bills included clothing for Ms. Palin’s family and purchases of shoes, luggage and jewelry, the advisers said.
The advisers described the McCain campaign as incredulous about the shopping spree and said Republican National Committee lawyers were likely to go to Alaska to conduct an inventory and try to account for all that was spent.
Ms. Palin has defended her wardrobe as the idea of the Republican National Committee and said that she would give it back.
“Those clothes, they are not my property,” she said. “Just like the lighting and the staging and everything else that the R.N.C. purchased.”
Advisers in the McCain campaign, in suggesting that Palin advisers had been leaking damaging information about the McCain campaign to the news media, said they were particularly suspicious of Randy Scheunemann, Mr. McCain’s top foreign policy aide who had a central role in preparing Ms. Palin for the vice-presidential debate.
As a result, two senior members of the McCain campaign said on Wednesday that Mr. Scheunemann had been fired from the campaign in its final days. But Rick Davis, the McCain campaign manager, and Mr. Salter, one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers, said Wednesday that Mr. Scheunemann had in fact not been dismissed. Mr. Scheunemann, who picked up the phone in his office at McCain campaign headquarters on Wednesday afternoon, responded that “anybody who says I was fired is either lying or delusional or a whack job.”
Mr. Scheunemann was referring to widely disseminated criticism by Mr. McCain’s advisers in the final days of the campaign that Ms. Palin, as first reported in Politico, was a “whack job.”
Whatever the permutations, the advisers said they strongly believed that Mr. Scheunemann was disclosing, as one put it, “a constant stream of poison” to William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a columnist for The New York Times.
Mr. Kristol, who wrote a column on Oct. 13 calling on Mr. McCain to fire his campaign because it was “close to being out-and-out dysfunctional,” said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that the campaign advisers were paranoid. Mr. Kristol has been a strong supporter of Ms. Palin.
“I wasn’t writing poison,” Mr. Kristol said. He added: “Randy Scheunemann is a friend of mine and I think he did a good job. I talked to him, but I talked to a lot of people at the campaign.”
The McCain camp was further upset about Ms. Palin’s interview with Ms. Couric, which was broadcast at a time when Ms. Palin was meeting with foreign leaders at the United Nations and trying to establish some foreign policy credentials. Ms. Palin’s wobbly and tongue-tied performance was mocked in an iconic impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” by Tina Fey.
Ms. Palin, who had prepared for and survived an initial interview with Charles Gibson of ABC News, did not have the time or focus to prepare for Ms. Couric, the McCain advisers said. “She did not say, ‘I will not prepare,’ ” a McCain adviser said. “She just didn’t have a bandwidth to do a mock interview session the way we had prepared before. She was just overloaded.”
One of the last straws for the McCain advisers came just days before the election when news broke that Ms. Palin had taken a call made by Marc-Antoine Audette. Mr. Audette and his fellow comedian Sebastien Trudel are notorious for prank calls to celebrities and heads of state.
Ms. Palin appeared to believe that she was talking to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, even though the prankster had a flamboyant French accent and spoke to her in a more personal way than would be protocol in such a call. At one point, he told Ms. Palin that she would make a good president some day. “Maybe in eight years,” she replied.
Julie Bosman and Michael Cooper contributed reporting.