The Oops Diaries: Turmoil Preceded Oops Moment

"Though Perry had expressed a preference for peace among his warring campaign advisers, Allbaugh is the one who had the governor’s ear. He had the power. And he was told to use all means necessary to rescue Perry’s sinking ship."

— Excerpted from Oops! A Diary from the 2012 Campaign Trail

From Chapter 16: “Pinky” Takes Charge

The news came as a jolt.

Normally, major personnel decisions would be made by the top consultant, Dave Carney, along with campaign manager Rob Johnson, the duo that had presided over Perry’s 2010 re-election campaign. This was different. A phone call had gone out from Perry’s trusted body man and travel aide Clint Harp. The governor wanted to talk to his senior staff — Carney, Johnson, policy director Deirdre Delisi, and communications director Ray Sullivan.

A conference call was set up for early evening. The campaign was on the verge of announcing the addition of six national consultants, a list that would read a bit like a Who Was Who of the Bob Dole 1996 presidential campaign. It included Dole’s former national press secretary, Nelson Warfield, his former media strategist, Tony Fabrizio, and a senior Dole adviser, Fred Maas.

Carney and Johnson had hand-picked the D.C. consultants a month earlier. They had already met in Austin to get acquainted with the staff and to get policy and research background briefings. Everyone knew those six names were going into the press release that would be made public the next day. The shock came with the new name mentioned on that Sunday conference call, and it came straight out of Perry’s mouth: Joe Allbaugh.

None of them had received a heads-up that the former Bush confidante had been invited over to the residence earlier that afternoon. None knew that Rick and Anita Perry had been talking to him about taking the reins of the sinking Perry campaign.

Allbaugh seems more like a drill sergeant than a political operative. He stands six-foot four, and his 20-inch neck bulges beneath a scrupulously coiffed flattop. Blunt and direct, he likes to tell young staffers they can be replaced in a heartbeat by some schmuck who would love to have their job. He had been known as “The Enforcer” in Bush’s “Iron Triangle” when he managed the 2000 presidential campaign. (The former president, a hopeless nickname artist, liked to call Allbaugh “Pinky” because of his rosy cheeks.)

It made sense for the Perry campaign to consult Allbaugh. Besides his national campaign experience and long track record in government, he was one of the few top Bush-era figures to endorse Perry in his 2010 primary. The other two members of the hallowed Bush triangle, former spokeswoman Karen Hughes and strategist Karl Rove, were on the outs with the governor, exposing a Bush-Perry rift that had only grown over time.

On that late October day, with his top aides on speakerphone and his campaign on the rocks, Perry didn’t ask his top hired hands if they thought Allbaugh might be a good fit for a job on the presidential campaign. He gave him one.

“Joe is going to look out for my best interests,” Perry said. “It’s going to be helpful, because Joe makes the trains run on time.” The governor did his best to smooth things over on that phone call, but the implication was unmistakable: The people who had gotten Perry re-elected to a third term as governor, and who had jumped at the chance to get him elected president, had let him down.

The news landed like a sucker punch on Carney, who was 52 and had guided Perry to every statewide victory since 1998. The six-foot-four, 300-plus-pound New Hampshire native had worked in the first Bush White House, and he was no stranger to hardball. He presided over Perry’s most bitterly fought contests. On his watch, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison had gone from wildly popular champion of Texas’ interests in the nation’s capital to a pork-barrel-spending, bailout-loving, D.C. insider: “Washington Kay.” Outwardly gruff, reflexively defensive, Carney likes to say that politics is a business and staff is expendable. But numerous friends and associates say that what was happening deeply hurt him. He and Perry were about as close to friends as a governor and a consultant can get. For a few days it wasn’t clear if Carney would stay on, but his allies on the campaign told him he should “just be Dave Carney” and fight back. For a while, he hung on.

*  *  *

On the day after that conference call, Oct. 24, Allbaugh strolled into the Monday-morning staff meeting at Perry campaign headquarters in Austin like an oversized motivational speaker looking for converts. Johnson, the campaign manager, was tapped to introduce him.

“I’m just here to help,” Allbaugh told the staff. At first, staffers said, they were told Allbaugh would handle “logistics,” such as airplanes, hotel rooms and the distribution of supplies and money to far-flung campaign offices in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Not strategy. A few days later at the next staff meeting, though, the vibe changed.

This time, Allbaugh had moved to the head of  the table and called the meeting. He asked the staff to recognize and applaud Johnson for his efforts, which struck some as an odd and condescending gesture, since Johnson presumably wasn’t going anywhere.

“We’ve got to make sure we put our best foot forward for Rick and Penny,” Allbaugh said.

Rick and Penny? Confused and embarrassed looks abounded, and a beet-red Allbaugh suddenly realized his error. He explained that he had friends named Rick and Penny, and he promptly gave the correct name of the first lady of Texas. But the impression he left with Perry’s Texas-based loyalists at that meeting would only grow — the impression that the Joe Allbaugh of political legend, the one who had so effectively run Bush’s 2000 campaign, a logistics man who’d been part of the former president’s inner circle — wasn't the one who had shown up.

Behind his back, staffers took to calling Allbaugh “Jack,” and eventually “Uncle Jack,” because he was so bad with names. They couldn’t stand it when he would mistakenly refer to them as the “Bush campaign” — a faux pas for operatives who still nourished resentment over being regarded as country inbreds by W’s elitist followers.

The misgivings turned out to be mutual. Allbaugh knew change wouldn’t come easy. He felt the campaign was being run like a national version of a Texas gubernatorial race. And as far as he could tell, no one was working very hard at it.

Allbaugh saw the staff as a bunch of entitled bureaucrats, confident in the knowledge that state jobs awaited them if things didn’t work out.

“The greatest thing that I found they disliked the most was accountability,” Allbaugh later said. “They didn’t like to have questions asked and then someone who was interested in an answer.”

He saw problems everywhere. In Iowa, he discovered that the hired campaign staff was making rote phone-bank calls to voters, a task normally left to volunteers or contractors. He thought the campaign was lavishing too much time and money on New Hampshire, where Perry was mired in the single digits. He wanted more downtime and trip efficiencies built into the schedule so Perry could rest and perform at a higher level. He surmised that nobody was watching the money very closely or giving the governor and Anita regular financial updates.

Allbaugh started making major campaign decisions even as Carney kept his title and salary, and it didn’t take long for the staff to become confused about who was in charge. Their competing roles had never been clearly defined. Allbaugh and Carney, both physically imposing men accustomed to calling the shots, were like “a couple of old bulls circling each other, trying to figure out what was going on,” recalls Sullivan.

By the time the CNBC debate in Rochester, Michigan, rolled around in early November, the internal tension had become enough of a distraction that Allbaugh decided he had to clue Perry in, to plunge him into the nitty-gritty of office politics and tell him that Allbaugh, after about three weeks on the job, was going to have to take charge.

He called Perry the day before the debate and told him Carney was not cooperating, that he had “disengaged” and dropped out of sight. He told Perry that his trusted adviser wasn’t being a team player. (Carney supporters dispute Allbaugh’s description and contend that Allbaugh was simply looking for a reason to seize control.)

Afterward, according to Allbaugh, Perry had some communication with Carney, possibly an email, and let him know he wanted him to work things out. Whatever they decided, it was eclipsed by what happened next, on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, when Perry went on the debate stage and began his side career as a spokesman for memory loss. The oops moment.

Allbaugh blames himself for Perry’s embarrassing lapse. He said he never should have forced Perry to think about the fate of his friend and longtime consultant just 24 hours before a high-stakes debate. He believes it threw Perry off his game.

“I know that he was thinking about his relationship with Carney and what it would mean,” Allbaugh said. “It’s my fault … it had to have been in the back of his mind. I should not have done that.”

Though Perry had expressed a preference for peace among his warring campaign advisers, Allbaugh is the one who had the governor’s ear. He had the power. And he was told to use all means necessary to rescue Perry’s sinking ship.

Allbaugh saw Carney as hopelessly disengaged and unwilling to cooperate on his terms. But the staff remained loyal to Carney, and it was becoming a major distraction. As Allbaugh saw it, he had to do something.

He called Carney on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

“Where are you?” Allbaugh said when Carney picked up. Carney said he was at the airport, heading to his native New Hampshire for the holiday.

“I’m boarding a plane out here, getting ready to go home,” Carney replied.

“Well, don’t come back unless you’re invited,” Allbaugh said.

The two never spoke again.

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