Face It

Plight of the Republican Presidential Race’s Zombie Candidates

They are dead—they just don’t know it. Political veteran Matt Bennett on the hallucinating GOP campaigns that haven’t yet come to grips with Mitt Romney’s inevitable victory.

01.19.12 3:13 AM ET

“We want Matt! We want Matt!” The first (and likely last) time a crowd has chanted my name, I was barricaded inside a hotel suite with the rest of the senior staff of Wes Clark’s presidential campaign. It was Feb. 10, 2004, the night of the Tennessee and Virginia primaries, and Clark had suggested (but not confirmed) that he would end his campaign if he failed to win either one.

As the results came in, it looked like another John Kerry sweep, and the reporters who traveled with us were anxious. They wanted to sound the death knell for the campaign, file their stories, and get out of Memphis as soon as possible. As communications director, I was the one they were depending on to tell them our plans: was it on to Nevada and beyond, or back to Arkansas and out of the race?

They tracked me to the candidate’s suite, where I was huddled with our team and talking to Clark, who had slipped out with his wife to have dinner, on his cell phone. He gave the order to announce that he was out of the race. We called the Associated Press and delivered the news, and I went out to tell the reporters that he would be packing it in.

And that’s how presidential campaigns die; not with a bang, but with a leak. Such leaks, often to the AP, are as simple as they are final: the candidate is “suspending” his campaign and returning home. For the campaign staff, the long, slow slog to the end of the line—which, let’s face it, every Republican candidate besides Mitt Romney is probably engaged in at the moment—can be painful and dispiriting. But it also has moments that are hilarious and surreal.

I have served in various posts, high and low, on four presidential campaigns, and I have advised a few more. I have been on the inside of humming juggernauts, like Clinton/Gore ’92 and ’96, and I have helped turn out the lights or pull the plug on struggling, losing campaigns, like Clark in 2004 and Mike Dukakis 1988. (I was also there for the winning/losing/tying/“losing” campaign of Al Gore in 2000.)

For the current non-Romney Republicans, I’ll bet their teams are experiencing things on par with what we faced on the Clark campaign. We had skipped Iowa and came in third in New Hampshire. We flew out of Manchester late that night heading to South Carolina, and the feeling on our campaign plane was strangely ebullient. We believed that we could compete in a three-way race with John Edwards and Kerry. But in retrospect, it’s clear that we were experiencing the hallucinatory effects of the campaign “bubble”: we still had lots of reporters traveling with us! Crowds were still coming out to see our guy! We were projected to win in Oklahoma! We were viable!

No, we weren’t. Kerry had won Iowa and New Hampshire, and he was on an unstoppable roll to the nomination. We were goners, but we weren’t ready to see that or concede yet. We were a zombie campaign—basically dead, but still moving.

Now the zombies are once again attacking in South Carolina. Here’s what it looks like inside the headquarters of Santorum and Gingrich. (I wouldn’t presume to guess what it’s like in Ron Paul’s world.)

First, the money is drying up. Fast. Wes Clark raised a near-record sum in the last quarter of 2003, but a month later, after Iowa, we couldn’t find a quarter in the campaign couch. It had fallen to me to stand on my desk and announce to our Little Rock headquarters staff that all of us were becoming campaign volunteers, meaning that paychecks were being suspended “for a while.” So if you see a Santorum staffer, buy her a cup of coffee.

Second, the sniping has begun. If the person you believe in and worked your heart out to elect has flopped with the voters, it is presumed to be the fault of some idiot on the staff. Cabals emerge; stories are leaked; hard feelings are aired. After the campaign, a former Clark colleague blogged that I was “the dumbest person in Democratic politics.” Zombie campaigns are no fun, so if Gingrich field organizers comes to your door, give them a smile.

Third, the press corps has become a pack of jackals. After New Hampshire, our press team was asked by reporters at least 10 times every day when Clark would be dropping out of the race. To be fair, these folks had copy to file and lives to lead. They were understandably unenthused about following a zombie around Tennessee. But as the days went on, it became almost impossible to get our message out. So you can imagine what life is like these days for the Santorum campaign press secretary. But hey, maybe a crowd will be chanting for him soon!

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With Jon Huntsman’s campaign “suspension” this week, the experience was typical. He gave a halfhearted, widely panned speech on the night he finished a distant third in New Hampshire. There he announced (wrongly, it turns out) that there were “three tickets out” of that state. He padded around South Carolina for a few days, convincing nobody. He consulted with his family, made a through-gritted-teeth call to the frontrunner, and bowed out.

The Huntsman team apparently went through all the stages of campaign death in quick-time: no money? Check. Or rather, no checks. His billionaire dad was apparently the only one still willing to invest in Huntsman Inc. after the poor showing in New Hampshire.

Staff sniping? You bet. Politico devoted nearly 4,000 words to the infighting in the Huntsman camp, full of leaked emails, backstabbing, tears, and pathos.

Press corps pressure? In spades. In the end, his folks had to contend with a barrage of questions about why Huntsman was trailing in South Carolina…behind late-night satirist Stephen Colbert.

There’s ample evidence that the remaining zombie campaigns are going through the same thing: Rick Perry, his campaign listing dangerously and preparing to sink, has abandoned ship before the primary even happened.

Gingrich is seeing mirages, believing that he’ll be saved by Sarah Palin’s sort-of-endorsement and another strong performance in a debate that few in South Carolina watched.

And Rick Santorum is now saying he’s hanging on for “a clean shot” at Romney, once his fellow also-rans drop out. We thought the same thing in 2004 after Howard Dean imploded on Iowa night (“Aarrgh!”), Dick Gephardt bowed out, and Joe Lieberman failed to muster any “Joementum” in New Hampshire.

But even with the field down to Clark, Edwards, and Kerry, we found that a steaming locomotive isn’t vulnerable to “clean shots.” Santorum is just putting off the inevitable, and you can bet his staff is doing some serious “volunteering” these days.

Of course, winning campaigns feel very, very different. The camaraderie is deep. (“You’re my BFF!”) Everyone is a political impresario. (“You put the candidate on a bus? That is genius!”) Notes scrawled on the wall become pop-culture references. (“It’s the economy, stupid.”) Young staffers secretly but fervently dream of strolling through the White House gates, a blue West Wing pass hanging from their necks.

The zombie Republican staffers won’t get there with their current candidates. But when Romney puts together his national team for the general election, many of them will swallow their misgivings, pin on a button, and go work for their party’s choice. Because in the end, the zombies fade away. And when your king is dead, you salute and say, “Long live the king.”