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Drama and departures in the Jon Huntsman campaign

A blistering internal feud in the Jon Huntsman presidential campaign is erupting into public view, with dueling camps trading charges and an exodus of campaign officials.

And now, a longtime family friend tells POLITICO that Huntsman's wife and father fret that his presidential prospects have been threatened by the turmoil — and he places the blame on John Weaver, Huntsman's controversial chief strategist.

Huntsman himself is so worried about the "drama," as he calls it, that he's taken a hands-on role in the restructuring, in hopes of rebounding from early missteps before it's too late to improve his bottom-of-the-pack standing.

"I look forward to a future of less drama, more money and increasing contrasts with my opponents. We can win this thing," Huntsman wrote in an e-mail to the friend just hours after the resignation of his first campaign manager, Susie Wiles, became public July 21.

"Goodness will overcome the temporary difficulties and early turf-protecting within the campaign," wrote Huntsman, adding: "I love you like a brother."

The recipient of that e-mail — David Fischer, who has known Huntsman since the 1980s and later worked for his father — shared with POLITICO behind-the-scenes details about Huntsman's stumbling start.

He described Huntsman's organization as disorganized and full of staff tension, disclosed new facts about the candidate's announcement day mishaps, recounted tearful conversations with the recently departed Wiles and revealed other previously undisclosed resignations.

Fischer himself recently left the campaign after being asked to give up his operations post by Weaver, who the campaign said was acting at the behest of the candidate. In a subsequent e-mail — one of several from Huntsman reviewed by POLITICO — Huntsman asked Fischer to stay on in an advisory role.

Fischer attributed the problems in the campaign almost entirely to Weaver.

"It's not an ego (thing)," Fischer said, when asked why he was going public. "In fact, a lot of it is if the story gets told, I want the story to be, because Weaver's history in past campaigns is when they don't work out, for whatever reason, he attacks the candidate. And in this case, I am hoping that people at least focus on, well, what went wrong here? The strategy went wrong. The strategy didn't work. At least to this day it hasn't worked."

After Fischer's revelations, multiple sources close to Huntsman's campaign subsequently came forward to corroborate some of the information and disclose new facts — revealing a campaign divided between factions loyal to Weaver and those who couldn't stand him.

Weaver declined to answer questions, and the campaign instead issued a statement targeting Fischer.

"Dave Fischer tried to threaten the campaign regarding his participation in this story and we refused to cooperate with him," said spokesman Tim Miller. "As a volunteer staff member he attempted to usurp authority, asked inappropriate questions about junior staff and was rightly asked to leave by Governor Huntsman. His statements about this campaign are untrue. The fact that he would be willing to undermine Governor Huntsman in this way says everything you need to know about his character, his credibility, and whether he has the Governor's best interests at heart."

Miller wouldn't elaborate on what he meant regarding the alleged threat to the campaign. Fischer said he had "no clue" what the spokesman meant, adding: "It just sounds like more of the garbage that spews from these people."

On the "inappropriate question," Fischer said he received a tip that there was a young aide hired by Huntsman who in previous campaigns "had a reputation for preying on young female volunteers." But Fischer said he brought up the matter only with Wiles and didn't confront the staffer in question.

As for his efforts to "usurp authority," Fischer said he only did what Huntsman asked him. "If my intent was to move rapidly up the ranks, I would've asked for a title and a salary," he said.

Miller explained Huntsman's e-mails to Fischer as the candidate's attempt to ease his departure from the campaign post.

"Gov. Huntsman was trying to let Dave down gently after literally hundreds of harassing e-mails, texts and phone calls. He clearly didn't anticipate that e-mails would be used against him. Gov. Huntsman thought the campaign was best able to move forward without Dave, it is abundantly clear that decision was the right one based on his behavior since being terminated."

Tensions within presidential campaigns, especially those struggling to find traction, are common. But the ferocity with which Fischer and others attack Weaver and the extent they went to disclose sensitive internal problems is not merely the stuff of a power struggle. It's illustrative of a campaign that has been thrown together on the run and is comprised of figures who hadn't even met the candidate before he returned from China this spring, working alongside those who have known him for much of their adult life.

The problem for Huntsman, of course, is that all this high-decibel public squabbling undercuts his main rationale for winning the GOP nomination — that the former Utah governor offers the level-headed competence and executive experience needed to unseat President Barack Obama. Not only that, but voters might wonder how he'd bring civility to the public discourse — another Huntsman promise — if he can't do the same inside the four walls of his campaign headquarters.

Fischer, 63, has been friends with Huntsman, 51, since the two served as young aides in the Reagan White House. After leaving Reagan in 1985, Fischer went to work for Huntsman's father, Jon M. Huntsman, Sr., as an executive at the elder Huntsman's Utah-based chemical company. Fischer subsequently returned to the Washington area and has been out of politics, working in mergers and acquisitions.

Recently, Fischer reached out to POLITICO to discuss his concerns with the campaign — a sort of public intervention. He initially insisted that he only be identified in any story as a "campaign insider." But after reading a RealClearPolitics story Sunday that featured unnamed Huntsman officials calling him a disruptive force, he was infuriated and agreed to go on the record.

Fischer and others describe a campaign rife with dysfunction and internal squabbles and insist that the chief strategist is at the heart of the problem, saying:

• At least four staffers who left the campaign did so in part over clashes with Weaver.

• Weaver tore into staff and volunteers after Huntsman's disastrous campaign announcement, leveling invective even at some workers who had nothing to do with the candidate's clumsy launch.

• Huntsman's father and wife, Mary Kaye, are worried about the direction of the campaign. "Why isn't he on any of the talk shows yet?" his wife asked in June. "Why isn't he on The View?"

• Huntsman's early staffing was so bare-bones that the campaign didn't even have a policy director, or standard white papers. It left Huntsman himself relying on papers prepared by the American Enterprise Institute to bone up on the issues.

• Fischer says Huntsman, who has already taken out a line of credit for the campaign, doesn't plan to contribute any more of his own fortune.

Fischer came into the campaign on May 17, when he met at the Kalorama home of his old friend and, according to Fischer, the candidate asked him to take on a "Don Evans role."

Just as the close confidant of George W. Bush did for the then-Texas governor in 2000, Fischer would "tell you what you need to hear and look out for your back," as Fischer recalled Huntsman describing the job that night.

Just over two months later, Fischer, having joined and then been pushed out of the day-to-day campaign, sent Huntsman an e-mail telling him he was withdrawing entirely.

"As your friend I have decided that the only way to stop this madness and pettiness is to remove myself from active involvement in your campaign," Fischer wrote on the evening of July 21. "As much as this pains me to do this I believe it is the right thing to do. I join a list of honorable, properly motivated men and women who have regretfully followed this course of action."

Writing back less than an hour later that night, Huntsman began his note by saying: "I love you like a brother."

Then the candidate, without attempting to convince Fischer to remain involved, acknowledged his campaign's internal tensions and difficulty with fundraising.

"We will reconnect when the obvious issues become less pronounced in our daily lives and do a bit of restructuring which I'm now deeply involved with. My gratitude for your friendship, support and early advice (some of which will be apparent in the management moves)," Huntsman wrote, saying, "We can win this thing."

From the descriptions offered by Fischer and others, however, that may be more of a challenge than the candidate is willing to recognize.

Fischer said he is speaking out now because of a motivation to help Huntsman regain his footing but said that if the former governor does drop out, the candidate shouldn't take all the blame.

Weaver on the trail

A mercurial political lifer, Weaver has found himself in the spotlight before. After rising to fame in the political world as one of John McCain's closest advisers in 2000, he carried on a feud with Karl Rove and briefly became a Democrat in the Bush years. He returned to the GOP and was the Arizona senator's chief strategist in the build-up to the 2008 campaign. But then the Texas native left the wheezing McCain campaign in 2007, losing out an internal power struggle to a rival faction.

According to Fischer, Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, are hesitant to fire Weaver because the veteran consultant helped engineer McCain's 2000 New Hampshire win and the couple believes that if they lose Weaver they'll lose much of their campaign in the Granite State.

"I think in Huntsman's mind is that if Weaver were to quit, the whole thing collapses," said Fischer. "And I've told him, 'Nonsense.' I said, 'If these people are devoted to you, they're not going to go because a campaign strategist leaves.' "

If Huntsman's attachment to Weaver puzzles some supporters, it is Huntsman who represents redemption for Weaver — a chance to notch his first presidential nomination victory.

The consultant was Huntsman's top political aide even before the governor went to China and, along with a handful of other strategists, was planning the campaign long before the would-be candidate returned from Beijing.

But Weaver's management style is partly why at least four Huntsman aides have resigned, Fischer and others contend.

Deadpanned Fischer: "If you're the civility candidate your campaign has to be civil to one another."

Family concerns

From Fischer's telling, the candidate, his wife and father are all worried about the campaign.

After a campaign announcement that featured a raft of missteps — a speech that lacked pep, a camera shot that missed the Statue of Liberty in the background, misspelling the candidates' name on the credential, taking the traveling press to a Saudi plane instead of the campaign plane — Huntsman indicated that evening that he was losing sleep over the operational side of the organization.

"He said, 'I wake up every night worrying about it,' " Fischer recalled of their conversation.

Huntsman's wife, a mother of seven and strong supporter of her husband's bid, has indicated to campaign officials that she's uneasy.

The campaign's troubles are also getting to the candidate's father and namesake, a wealthy CEO and the man who Fischer counts as his "mentor in business."

The elder Huntsman declined an interview request, but Fischer said that in conversations with his former boss twice over the last month the father expressed concern about his son and the campaign.

"He said, 'Jon seems to be down a little bit, you know, he's surrounded by people he doesn't necessarily like,' " recounted Fischer about a phone conversation in early July with the man he calls "Senior."

Later in the month, at a donor's meeting in Deer Valley, Utah, Huntsman the elder again confided that he was upset about the campaign.

"Very concerned," is how Fischer described the father's frame of mind at the donor's event, adding: "You know, I think … the governor describes his dad as his best friend, so I think that they talk a lot. But there's a limit to what the father can do."

Money woes

Because he only entered the race in late June, Huntsman did not have to file a quarterly financial disclosure with the FEC earlier this month. But his campaign has said they raised about $4 million — less than half of which came from the candidate's own pocket.

Fischer said it was not a gift from Huntsman but rather a line of credit — and that the candidate has made clear to him he won't take out any more money.

"He's done," said Fischer, though the campaign disputes that.

But just hours after Huntsman launched his bid at New Jersey's Liberty Park last month, some of the former governor's top supporters were already planning to ask the candidate for more of his own cash.

"(Former Rep.) Tom Loeffler, right in the middle of the announcement trip, says, 'Come up to my room,' " Fischer recounted. "So we sat and had drinks. And he said, 'Well, on the fundraising … we'll probably get to a point where the governor is just going to have to pony up again.'

"And I said, 'There is no pony.' I just said, 'I'm telling you, he's told me on numerous occasions, I will not do any more.' "

According to Fischer, donors were told at the Deer Valley retreat that the campaign wanted to go on the air with ads after Huntsman's announcement but didn't have the money. They now hope to go up after the debate in Iowa next week but they aren't sure they'll be able to afford it.

"(They're) trying to encourage people to raise more money," said Fischer, with the hope being: "Instead of being a $25,000, it will be $50,000"

Staff exodus

Fischer and others said Weaver was partly responsible for the departure of Wiles as well as Spencer Geissinger, who had been head of advance, and Alysia Barzee, the campaign scheduler.

"Susie Wiles hated John Weaver," said Fischer. "I mean, I was on the phone at least three times with her when she was in tears because something Weaver had done to her."

In an e-mail, Wiles only said she, Geissinger and Barzee were not fired.

When Geissinger, a veteran advance man who worked in the Bush White House, quit last month, the official line from the campaign was that he was leaving because his mother is ill. That's only half the story.

He also quit because, as he told others in the campaign, he wouldn't work for Weaver.

In an e-mail to a friend on the campaign explaining his decision to leave, the advance man was blunt, saying he would not work for Huntsman "as long as John Weaver is involved."

"I cannot work under or be subjected to his management style and to be frank, there are others in your midst who are struggling with it, too," Geissinger wrote on June 25, well before word was put out that he had left the campaign.

A Geissinger colleague from the Bush White House, Barzee was working long hours on scheduling out of her apartment in Washington, D.C., before the campaign moved to Orlando.

"She, all along, was saying, 'I can't do this anymore,' and there were abuse issues, verbal abuse issues," said Fischer. "I had the governor call her one time, had Mary Kaye call her just to keep her because she was really good at what she did."

Barzee never even made the trip to Orlando and quit in late June.

Organization

Beyond money, the campaign has suffered early organizational challenges — and not just with departing personnel.

With no policy director initially, Huntsman was relying on position papers from the American Enterprise Institute to serve as his briefings.

On June 25, four days after the former governor's announcement, but well after he had put together his basic campaign infrastructure, Fischer sent the candidate a blunt note.

"I am concerned about the slow pace of assembling your policy team," Fischer wrote. "(Finance consultant) Jim McCray called me today and he mentioned that donors often ask for a specific policy white paper. We don't have them."

Huntsman has since added a policy director to the campaign.

Publicly, at least, Huntsman's campaign problems were most vividly illustrated when he formally launched his campaign on June 21st across the Hudson from the Statue of Liberty.

When the elder Huntsman arrived at Liberty Park, he immediately noticed that his son's name was misspelled as "John" on the credentials, recalled Fischer.

"Huntsman Senior and his wife saw it within five seconds, too, and they came over. It was like, 'Who did this? They need to be fired. This is embarrassing.' "

Then, when the Huntsman caravan arrived to a Saudi airplane at the Newark airport, the father again knew something was amiss.

At age 74, he took matters into his own hands.

"So Huntsman told the bus driver, 'Open the door.' He goes out and he's talking to the cops out there and he's taking control of it. He's pointing in the other direction to that. So finally, we all get back on the buses and we head over to the right airplane."

At this point, Fischer recalled, the candidate came over on the tarmac.

"He doesn't get angry," said Fischer. "He's very — he's really in control of his emotions. But he just said, Lanny's got to go."

(That would be Lanny Wiles, a veteran advance man and Susie Wiles' husband. Even after she left the campaign earlier this month, Huntsman aides said he was staying on.)

After they finally got on the plane, they waited — and waited.

Then a flight attendant came by and informed the staff and governor of the problem: no pilot. He was coming in on a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth but got held up by bad weather.

"I mean, my mouth dropped open," Fischer said.

That night, riding with Fischer in the car on the way into New York City for a fundraiser, the candidate confided he was losing sleep over the campaign and wanted his friend to take over the operations side of the effort.

Parting ways

So Fischer went down to the campaign headquarters in Orlando, where both the top advance man (Geissinger) and scheduler (Barzee) were already out.

Fischer soon was, too.

On June 30, only nine days after Huntsman asked him to go down to Orlando, Weaver told Fischer in front of others on the campaign that he was bringing in somebody else to run operations.

Huntsman attempted to call his friend on the phone, but Fischer was angry at his treatment and didn't take the call.

That night, the candidate sent an e-mail to Fischer and gently explained that he wanted him to reprise the Don Evans role.

"As we regroup following the discussions in Orlando (where I figured rational minds would prevail), I want to move us back to the 'senior advisor' role you started out with," wrote Huntsman. "I need someone of your stature by my side who can take an objective view of all ends of the campaign. No one else can play this role and it reaches beyond the logistics and operations into the broader spectrum of policy; politics, outreach and various personal and family areas. I had a real comfort level with you playing this unique role and I'd like to return to that model … if you are willing."

Fischer was — for a while. But the bad blood with Weaver continued and July 21 he sent an e-mail backing out for good.

"Opposition to my involvement with you only increased resulting in too much negativity and added stress in your life," he wrote, offering to still provide "quiet counsel."

Near the end of his note, Fischer added this coda: "Our friendship runs deep and in a perverted sort of way it has actually been strengthened during these rather weird two months of campaigning."

After the RealClearPolitics story Sunday, though, Fischer was livid.

Fischer sent Huntsman an e-mail that night describing the piece as "an obvious attempt by someone in the campaign to disparage and discredit me" and called it "symptomatic of a serious lack of leadership at the highest level of your campaign."

Fischer concluded: "The allegations asserted against me are not true and you know it. I trust you will take appropriate steps to set the record straight and right this terrible wrong."

The candidate wrote back at 1:13 in the morning.

"Absolutely Horrible," began Huntsman. "The article is benign but it's the intent that is troubling. And my responsibility to get to the bottom of this. Just when we were reaching a better stride. I'll let you know what I find."

POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.

Drama and departures in the Jon Huntsman campaign 08/04/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 4, 2011 11:27am]

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