THE STRUGGLE ON THE INSIDE
Even in Victory, Clinton Team Is Battling Itself
Thursday, March 6, 2008
For the bruised and bitter staff around Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tuesday's death-defying victories in the Democratic presidential primaries in Ohio and Texas proved sweet indeed. They savored their wins yesterday, plotted their next steps and indulged in a moment of optimism. "She won't be stopped," one aide crowed.
And then Clinton's advisers turned to their other goal: denying Mark Penn credit.
With a flurry of phone calls and e-mail messages that began before polls closed, campaign officials made clear to friends, colleagues and reporters that they did not view the wins as validation for the candidate's chief strategist. "A lot of people would still like to see him go," a senior adviser said.
The depth of hostility toward Penn even in a time of triumph illustrates the combustible environment within the Clinton campaign, an operation where internal strife and warring camps have undercut a candidate once seemingly destined for the Democratic nomination. Clinton now faces the challenge of exploiting this moment of opportunity while at the same time deciding whether the squabbling at her Arlington headquarters has become a distraction that requires her intervention.
Many of her advisers are waging a two-front war, one against Sen. Barack Obama and the second against one another, but their most pressing challenge is figuring out why Clinton won in Ohio and Texas and trying to duplicate it. While Penn sees his strategy as a reason for the victories that have kept her candidacy alive, other advisers attribute the wins to her perseverance, favorable demographics and a new campaign manager. Clinton won "despite us, not because of us," one said.
Sifting through the data yesterday, her divided circle offered other theories. Some credit field operatives who set up organizations in record time. Others cite strong Hispanic outreach in South Texas that held off a late Obama push. And even some Penn opponents grudgingly cite his television commercial that asked which Democrat is more prepared for a 3 a.m. crisis call at the White House.
In the days leading up to the Ohio and Texas contests, Clinton presented herself as the victim of media bias and displayed a sense of humor on "Saturday Night Live" at the same time her staff was holding daily conference calls attacking Obama on his trade record and for his ties to an indicted real estate developer. The yin-yang approach -- going positive and negative at the same time -- may not have been deliberate, but it seemed to work.
"There has been a long-term disagreement on strategy over whether to focus on character . . . or raising questions about Senator Obama," said one top Clinton aide who was at the core of the fight. "What's happened over the last two weeks is we've done both."
One of Clinton's favorite books is "Team of Rivals," Doris Kearns Goodwin's account of Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet, and she assembled her own team of advisers knowing their mutual enmity in the belief that good ideas come from vigorous discussion. But while many campaigns are beset by backbiting and power struggles, dozens of interviews indicate that the internal problems endured by the Clinton team have been especially corrosive.
They fought over Penn's strategy of presenting Clinton as a strong commander in chief rather than trying to humanize her, as aides such as admaker Mandy Grunwald and chief spokesman Howard Wolfson wanted to do. They fought over deployment of assets and dwindling resources, pointing fingers over the failure to field organizations in many states. They fought over how to handle former president Bill Clinton and his habit of drifting away from his talking points into provocative territory.
At the center of much of this turmoil has been Penn, the rumpled, brusque, numbers-crunching strategist respected even by his foes for his intelligence, if not his social graces. A trusted adviser to the Clintons since helping orchestrate Bill Clinton's reelection campaign in 1996, Penn mapped out a strategy emphasizing strength and experience but, in the view of critics, did not adjust adequately when it became clear that voters wanted change.
"I think about all camps think it's Mark's fault," said a Clinton White House veteran close to the campaign. "I don't think there is a Mark camp." Another person who has advised the senator from New York said: "Penn should have been let go. He failed the campaign in developing a message and evolving the message as things changed."