Inside the Surprising McCain-Palin Friendship

Tonight Palin will be helping out her old mentor as he fights for his seat. Shushannah Walshe reports on just how friendly they are and what it means for McCain to be asking for her help.

Stephan Savoia / AP Photo

The GOP's favorite dynamic duo reunited Friday afternoon, as Sarah Palin delivered a fiery speech for Sen. John McCain's reelection to the U.S. Senate at a rally in Tucson, Arizona. Donning a leather jacket and entering to AC/DC's "For Those About To Rock, We Salute You," Palin exclaimed, "send the maverick back to the United States Senate!" McCain took the stage after Palin, echoing Palin's sentiments about a need for change in Washington. As the former running mates campaign together for the first time since 2008, sources familiar with them say they have chatty, personal phone calls and remain friendly even though Palin attacked many of McCain’s loyal staffers. Shushannah Walshe takes us inside their relationship and what it means for McCain’s campaign.

This weekend John McCain and Sarah Palin are bringing the band back together and hitting the road in support of the Arizona senator’s reelection battle. On Friday, there will be a rally and picnic in Tucson followed by a private fundraiser. The next day, the former presidential ticket will be campaigning in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa. The campaign expects 1,000 people at each rally to see the duo back together.

Ever since the campaign, much has been written about Palin’s openly antagonistic relationship with McCain’s senior staffers during the campaign and after. Most notably, Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, who she skewers in Going Rogue.

“You can’t steal the spotlight, if you are offered the spotlight.”

Yet, there seems to be no hard feelings between the former GOP presidential and vice-presidential nominees, even after all the public warring continues between some of McCain’s closest advisers and Palin.

But the question remains if they can still possibly be friendly after all that has happened?

Peter Lauria: Palin’s Alaska Pay Day Sources with knowledge of their relationship do describe the duo as friends and that they go in spurts where they speak frequently and then less so. A close friend and adviser to McCain would not describe their relationship since the campaign as still that of mentor and apprentice, although it may have started that way in August 2008. It may appear humbling for McCain, who has been Arizona’s senator since 1986, to have to call in his younger, much less experienced former running mate to stump for him, but the adviser is adamant that “he likes her, he defends her, he was happy to invite her, and happy that she can do it. It’s not humbling” and that it “would not even occur to him to feel any other way.” The senator is not afraid of Palin upstaging him because this same adviser stresses that “you can’t steal the spotlight, if you are offered the spotlight.”

A source familiar with the relationship who has worked for both McCain and Palin say that their catch-up conversations are not just about politics, but that they also chat about commonalities, like both having children serving in the military. He said she and Todd are “looking forward to getting together with a friend and somebody she believes in.” When asked if Palin holds any old grudges from the campaign infighting, the staffer said, “just because you don’t like somebody’s staff doesn’t mean you don’t like them.”

In the book I co-authored, Sarah From Alaska, we document the somewhat awkward goodbye between McCain and Palin on Election Night. McCain was in such a hurry to depart the Arizona Biltmore that Palin ran into him attempting to leave without saying goodbye. A pat on the back hug ensued and then the McCains departed. Since that moment, late on November 4, 2008, their fortunes have taken a surprising turn.

McCain is in a tough primary battle against former Arizona congressman and talk-radio host J.D. Hayworth. Hayworth, who considers himself the more conservative choice to McCain, is hoping to lure Tea Party enthusiasts to his campaign. Since Palin has positioned herself as the unofficial leader of the fractured movement, most would expect her to be supporting its favored candidate, Hayworth, but, of course, this is a different situation. It’s payback time and Palin has McCain to thank for introducing her to the country and making her one of the most famous people in America.

A former senior adviser to McCain during his primary battle and the general election said that he never heard McCain speak ill of Palin, but described their campaigning together as “entirely transactional,” adding that “she feels obligated and he feels that he benefits from her.” And there is no doubt she does help him—by bringing her conservative rock-star celebrity to Arizona it helps McCain grab some of those voters who were turned off by his views on immigration and campaign-finance restrictions. It’s hard to remember a time when Sarah Palin wasn’t a daily headline, but she was a virtual unknown when McCain plopped her onto the national stage. Almost immediately the crowds at campaign rallies swelled, many supporters streaming out after the Alaska governor had introduced McCain. It’s that charisma and celebrity that McCain will be relying on this weekend and will hope to sustain him until the August primary.

McCain’s temper is legendary and something he has spoken and written about extensively, but was the senator angry or even embarrassed when Going Rogue came out trashing so many of the people who worked to try to get him to the White House? It doesn’t seem so. He told Politico at the time, "I enjoyed the book and she and I are dear friends.”

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Brian Rogers, spokesman for the Senate campaign who also worked on the 2008 election, said, “Senator McCain admires that Sarah Palin has inspired a lot of people to get involved and make their voices heard since the election.”

The plans for the two to campaign together have been in the works for an extended period of time and according to senate campaign staff she intends to tell the crowds “what she learned about the senator over the course of the campaign and her view that he plays such an important role for conservatives and Republicans in the Senate today.”

McCain’s goal is clear: Win the GOP primary and retain his Senate seat and calling in his old running mate may just get him one step closer to that objective. As one former adviser put it, “He is single-mindedly focused on destroying Hayworth and hates his guts and believes Palin will help him do that.”

Shushannah Walshe is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at Fox News from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.