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VOL. 123 | NO. 216 | Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Ex-Campaign Chief, Memphian Watches Election

By Andy Meek

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MAN BEHIND THE MAN: Former presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee introduces his campaign manager, former Memphian Chip Saltsman, right, at a February press event. -- AP PHOTO/DANNY JOHNSTON

Memphians who go to the polls today will help shape a new direction for the country with the votes they cast for president. And in one of the more unlikely stories of the 2008 campaign, the recent efforts of a former Memphian contributed to the choice of contenders.

Chip Saltsman, a graduate of Christian Brothers University who enjoys hunting and black snakeskin boots, is as at home in a duck blind as he is in the halls of Tennessee’s political establishment.

He’ll be watching the outcome of today’s choice with the knowledge that only comes from operating temporarily at the center of a presidential campaign season that has captivated the country for nearly two years.

Ducks in rows

At first, Saltsman thought he’d spend this year in charge of the presidential bid it once seemed former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was certain to mount. Saltsman is Tennessee’s former Republican Party state chairman and a longtime Frist confidant.

Chip Saltsman

But the former Senate majority leader chose not to run, and it was instead a Baptist preacher-turned-Southern governor who ultimately called on Saltsman’s services for the 2008 contest.

Invited to go hunting with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at Wingmead, one of Arkansas’ premier duck clubs, the governor asked Saltsman to run what became Huckabee’s short-lived but attention-grabbing presidential bid.

For Huckabee, the campaign marked a surprise ride to the top, because the trajectory of his political career took him from the Arkansas governor’s mansion – which he left in 2007 – to the pinnacle of Republican politics with his victory in the Iowa Republican caucus in January. That paved the way for the quick exits of other contenders until the folksy governor was the last man standing in the path to the Republican presidential nomination clinched by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in March.

Saltsman, who’s now a business investor and venture capitalist in Nashville, let out a hearty laugh when asked what Huckabee said to convince him to join the team.

“I always joke he hired me because I’m not smart. Not smart enough to know he didn’t have a chance to win,” Saltsman told The Daily News. “I’m not a full-time political consultant. So I’m able to pick and choose campaigns I’m interested in. After Frist got out, there was nobody else I really believed strongly in. Nobody really turned me on.

“A friend made me go duck hunting with Mike Huckabee, and we clicked when I walked into the room. It was just me and him talking about what he wanted to do for the country.”

From scratch

That marked the beginning of what would become an unorthodox and an admittedly shoestring campaign operation. But that also was something that attracted Saltsman.

“Very rarely do you get to start a campaign from scratch and build it the way you want it to be built,” he said. “You’ve got 11 months, and you can see a path – I used to tell the governor, ‘I can see a path. I know you can’t see it, but I can see it.’ You keep your head down and you keep going.

“It was a tough time at first. We were driving around Iowa doing events with five people. He wasn’t a rock star when he first got started. Where we really had our successes was online and in the new media. We spent a lot of time interviewing with bloggers. We did a (conference) call with bloggers every week. We had a dedicated group of online supporters that kept us in the game, and we raised most of our money online.”

For Saltsman, the highlight of the 2008 race was helping Huckabee triumph in the Iowa caucus, the first of the many 2008 presidential match-ups that pitted Huckabee against heavyweights such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“It felt great. Iowa was always going to have to be a make-or-break state for us,” Saltsman said. “So you put together a game plan and … it gave us some validity to the national media who said this guy has no chance. We spent a long time fighting that stereotype, then we proved he knew his issues, that he was an effective campaigner and speaker. We just came up a little short at the end.”

‘Crying time’

The course of the two-man race that ensued between McCain and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has engendered strong feelings on both sides of the partisan divide, partly because of the historic nature of the candidates. Obama would be the first black man elected president if he wins, and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate, would be the first female vice president if McCain is the winner.

Those feelings have been on display in venues large and small in Memphis.

“My colleague to my left is an ultra conservative, but he should know there’s a change that’s going to be coming soon in this country,” said Shelby County Board of Commissioners member Sidney Chism at a recent county commission meeting in a good-natured rib directed at fellow commissioner Wyatt Bunker. “It’s going to be crying time.”

But on the national level, some of that feeling on the Republican side has manifested itself in less good-natured ways, according to media reports that already describe premature rounds of finger-pointing over who and what is to blame should Obama win. But Saltsman will have none of it.

He said McCain has run an effective campaign.

“Let’s be honest. Two months ago, before the economy tanked, he was two points ahead,” Saltsman said. “There was nothing going their way nationally. They had all headwinds and no tailwinds. They had a united Democratic party, a candidate with unlimited resources, and nothing was going right.”

While he doesn’t admit to having the same kinds of gut-check moments other frustrated Republican operatives and officials may be having in the face of a possible Obama win, Saltsman does believe his party has been sidetracked from its core philosophy. He repeats a phrase used by McCain often on the campaign trail – that Republicans “came to Washington to change it, but it changed us.”

He also said he believes the national media have put McCain under extraordinary scrutiny while giving his opponent a virtual pass, which is something else McCain and his surrogates have repeated often on the campaign trail. But Saltsman only criticizes the press coverage to a certain point.

“It’s something you factor into the equation, and it certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise the national media cover these campaigns with a little bit of a tint,” Saltsman said. “At the end of the day, they can’t help themselves. I think some of them try not to do it. It’s just the nature of the beast. But you know that going in, and you adjust. You just scratch your head and move on.”

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