GOP sending muddled messages

Palin nod reflects camp's internal confusion

Reports of John McCain’s messaging operations finally holding to a single, coherent track may be premature — at least in the case of the introduction of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the national stage. But the veep pick did seem to push Barack Obama’s acceptance speech off the front pages.

While the Bush years have been characterized by a rigorous GOP message effort, top strategists say that even when it appears the McCain camp has a coordinated plan — descriptions over the weekend of Palin were largely uniform — that’s not case.

“I usually get talking points from the campaign, but I didn’t get a thing on Palin,” said Tony Blankley, former press rep for Newt Gingrich and a conservative pundit.

GOP polling whiz Frank Luntz also discounted any coordinated messaging, based on McCain’s appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” which Luntz described as “not very good.” But Luntz did describe the timing of the release of Palin’s pick as “pure Hollywood at its best.”

So why did everyone say virtually the same things about Palin?

“It’s all they knew about her,” Luntz said. “When you’re in that kind of situation, you go to what you know.”

“People in the communications business, it’s amazing how quickly they will hone in on the things to say,” added Blankley. “I’ve been doing talk TV for years, and it’s amazing how people will intuit things similarly.”

Arianna Huffington, who runs the left-leaning online site Huffington Post, didn’t detect any coordinated messaging. “They were just default comments,” she said.

But Paul Waldman, senior fellow for the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters for America, said “it probably is” a coordinated message, though “I cannot pinpoint the exact e-mail. It doesn’t take long to see what the official message is.” He added that the GOP has proven skillful at taking cues from party leaders who they see on TV and repeating the same message.

Waldman noted that in describing Palin many commentators repeated the word “maverick” — which the McCain campaign often uses in referring to its candidate — as well as the fact that she is the mother of five children.

Waldman acknowledged that Democrats issue and follow talking points as well, “It’s just that they don’t follow the instructions as much as Republicans do.”

Waldman also noted that despite the similar descriptions commentators used, “There were some notes of dissent.” Some figures from the Washington GOP establishment have not been as enthused with the pick, he added, among President Bush’s former speechwriter David Frum.

Blankley said the McCain messaging ops have improved dramatically with the arrival of senior adviser Steve Schmidt.

That the McCain campaign was able to keep word about Palin locked down until the last minute amounted to “the single best-kept political secret of the Republic,” Luntz said. “Nobody knew anything about it. Frank Capra couldn’t have done better.”

It was all in the timing, Luntz noted. Shortly after Dem candidate Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech, word of the Palin pick began to leak.

“Nobody was talking about the speech the next day,” Luntz said.

The messaging might remain wobbly, “but the fact that they blew Obama off the front pages showed that when they want to deliver, they can,” he said.

New questions arose about the campaign on Monday following reports that Palin’s teenage daughter is pregnant. McCain campaign officials said they were aware of the pregnancy before the announcement of Palin as the VP pick, but they did not explain why the campaign did not pre-empt Internet reports of the pregnancy, nor why McCain did not consider the matter a liability to the GOP ticket.

But campaign watchers are also saying the McCain campaign has done a good job about giving an early and consistent response to the threat posed by Hurricane Gustav.