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Even in Victory, Clinton Team Is Battling Itself

By Peter Baker and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
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."

But there is a Penn camp, however small, that believes in his message of strength, experience, and fear of recession and crisis -- and its most important members are Bill and Hillary Clinton. Three times, campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle and senior adviser Harold Ickes tried to hire another national pollster so Penn would not be the one to test his own message, campaign sources said, and three times they were rejected. When the candidate forced out Solis Doyle last month after a string of defeats, the departing manager said Penn should also be fired, to no avail, sources said.

Penn declined to respond when reached yesterday, but he has been firing back in conversations with compatriots in recent days, arguing that he never had control of the campaign's finances or organization, instead blaming Ickes, Solis Doyle and her deputy, Mike Henry, who resigned. "Mark Penn's point is: 'I didn't do any of the spending,' " said a campaign colleague who has heard the argument. "Penn's whole point is: 'To say I had control of the money is crazy. Patti was in charge.' "

And so strangely enough, a moment of victory for the Clinton camp somehow feels less than victorious. "Mark blames Patti and Patti blames Mark in a circular firing squad," said an adviser who has worked for both Clintons and watched Penn, Solis Doyle, Ickes, Wolfson, Grunwald and others go at it for months. "What they don't realize is that everyone else blames them -- all of them."

'Resentment Within the Campaign'

The Centennial Hotel in Concord, N.H., was a grim place the night of Jan. 7. Fresh off a third-place finish in Iowa on Jan. 3, Clinton looked as though she would lose the New Hampshire primary the next day, a defeat that could be fatal to her presidential bid. Penn sat on his bed in his hotel room and drafted a plan for how to go forward.

He had no idea whether he would be around to execute such a strategy. Exasperated, Hillary and Bill Clinton were sketching out a staff shake-up. They would bring in former aides, such as Douglas B. Sosnik and Steve Ricchetti, two of the "White Boys," as her staff still called his advisers from their White House days. Hillary Clinton would ask her former chief of staff, Maggie Williams, to effectively take over, although Solis Doyle would keep her title. "People are telling me the campaign's not working, and I've got to show I'm making changes," Clinton told aides.

When word got around, there was a "parade to the doorstep" of the candidate by other top aides urging her to keep Solis Doyle or accept their resignations, a senior adviser said. "There was virtual universal agreement that if there was fault, it should be laid at the door of Mark Penn, not Patti Solis Doyle," the adviser said. "People thought change should be made, but the wrong person was being fired. And it created enormous resentment within the campaign."

Penn has been a lightning rod ever since the 1996 campaign. More comfortable with data than people, he promoted a centrist approach that was policy-driven and successful but bloodless. He earned a passel of enemies along the way. Longtime Clinton advisers such as Ickes, James Carville, Rahm Emanuel, John Podesta and Paul Begala openly despise him, and some even nicknamed him "Schlumbo." Ickes and others tried unsuccessfully to get Penn fired from Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign.

Penn did not make a lot of new friends in his latest campaign, arguing against any apologies for Clinton's vote to go to war with Iraq and generating resentment with PowerPoint survey presentations that did not give colleagues the data they sought. He chastised a campaign aide who described him in a campaign document as "pollster" instead of his title "chief strategist." At the same time, Penn's firm has taken in $10 million from the campaign, the vast bulk of which has gone to direct mail and polling, with about $240,000 for the consulting team. But defenders point to the strategist's record of success and say opponents are too focused on personality.

In the end, New Hampshire delivered a stunning upset victory for Clinton, and she pulled back on part of her shake-up plan. The newcomers would come on board, but everyone already there would stay. "I'm not dead," a relieved Penn told a colleague as votes came in. Williams joined the team but was assigned to specific projects such as youth outreach and surrogate speakers.

The campaign managed to build on its momentum by going next to Nevada, where it won another surprise victory on Jan. 19 despite Obama's support from key unions. But next up was South Carolina, where the African American vote was dominant in Democratic primaries. A serious debate ensued about how much to invest in the state. Strategists wanted to target specific congressional districts where they might pick up delegates but limit their time there.

"Bill Clinton just aggressively disagreed," said a top campaign official involved in the discussion. "He was like, 'No, I'm going to South Carolina and it's stupid to cede it.' I think it was personal for him. He was not about to lose the African American vote he had spent so long" courting. So he went to South Carolina and stayed.

The campaign had long ago discovered its limitations in dealing with the former president. He was, after all, no ordinary candidate's spouse. Her aides had become irritated trying to prod his staff to hire a new press secretary and complained that they had a hard time getting one of their own people onto his airplane to keep him on message. For their part, Bill Clinton's people viewed her staff warily, grousing that they never consulted him through much of 2007 or even showed him a calendar of events.

"The greatest challenge going into the campaign," a senior campaign aide said with a sigh, "was the management of Bill Clinton."

That seemed evident in South Carolina. The former president had grown frustrated that the campaign had not aggressively challenged Obama and so took it upon himself to go after the senator from Illinois, but in the process his comments unwittingly triggered an uproar that many Clinton advisers think the Obama campaign fanned by -- in their view -- twisting his words to paint him unfairly as a racist.

The Clinton camp ended up spending nearly $7 million in South Carolina, but Obama won in a landslide. On Jan. 26, the day of the election, Penn sent an e-mail to the senior campaign staff comparing Obama's victory there to Jesse L. Jackson's two wins in the 1980s. Bill Clinton made the same comparison to reporters that day, generating even more anger among African Americans who perceived it as a way of marginalizing Obama by portraying him as a black candidate who appeals only to black voters.

As Clinton strategists woke up the next morning, they realized that the African American constituency, a backbone of the Democratic coalition, was permanently lost to her. Only then were some of his closest former aides, such as Sosnik, former White House lawyer Cheryl D. Mills and fundraiser Terence R. McAuliffe, tapped to talk with him about reining in his rhetoric, and a daily conference call was established to try to enforce it.

"You had your Hillary people, and you had your Bill people," said the top campaign official. "There were some crossovers, but very few. The Hillary people could never tell him to cut the [crap] because they were Hillary people -- and vice versa."

'This Can't Be Happening'

As one of his generation's smartest political strategists, Bill Clinton understood without anyone telling him that he had damaged the campaign, distracting the public at a time when his wife should have been reintroducing herself with the New Hampshire and Nevada victories at her back. If he did not, he got a powerful wake-up call.

During South Carolina, Clinton friends in Massachusetts such as longtime operative John Sasso and former Kennedy family aides began blitzing the Arlington headquarters with warnings that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) was planning to endorse Obama. But the camp was slow to react, they complained. "People in Boston were apoplectic," a Clinton fundraiser said. "I got the sense it never got high enough up in the organization. And then they realized, 'Oh, my God, this can't be happening.' "

Once it fully dawned on the campaign that the head of the nation's most storied Democratic family planned to pass the torch to Obama, both Hillary and Bill Clinton called to try to change his mind. Kennedy, who according to sources close to him was offended by remarks that seemed to diminish his brother John F. Kennedy's role in civil rights, gave Bill Clinton an earful about his rhetoric.

A Clinton aide called it "a very testy conversation." Another said the former president adamantly denied making offensive remarks. "There's nothing I said that was racial," the aide quoted Clinton as saying. But it was too late, and Kennedy's endorsement two days after South Carolina was a heavy blow.

Hillary Clinton had little time to turn things around before Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, and a campaign that had raised more than $100 million in 2007 suddenly found itself short of money. Ickes and Solis Doyle went to the Clintons for a loan to pay for television ads. The candidate was exasperated. "God, I've raised all this money," she exclaimed, according to one person informed about the conversation. "What have you guys done with it?"

The Clintons lent the campaign $5 million, and Solis Doyle and Henry focused resources on a dozen battleground states, mainly large ones such as California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, as well as Arizona and New Mexico, with large Hispanic populations. But they essentially did not compete in smaller states holding caucuses. Clinton, feeling burned by Iowa, had become allergic to caucuses, deeming them unfair.

Ickes and political director Guy Cecil argued that such states were important because even if she lost, she would pick up delegates with a strong showing. That would soon become clear. Clinton racked up big wins in California, New Jersey and even Kennedy's Massachusetts. But she lost the caucus states, and because of the party's proportional rules, it cost her.

"That was one of the biggest blunders we had," a senior official said.

Obama invested in Idaho, for example, while Clinton did not, and as a result he won 15 delegates to her three. In New Jersey, on the other hand, Clinton won 59 delegates to 48 for Obama. So the net 12 delegates Obama picked up in Idaho offset the 11 net delegates she earned in the much bigger state of New Jersey.

"You end up canceling out everything we had done in New Jersey," said Hassan Nemazee, the campaign's finance co-chairman. "All that work in New Jersey was essentially nullified."

'Oligarchy at the Top'

Ickes was characteristically blunt on the conference call after Super Tuesday. It was quite likely that Clinton would lose the next 11 contests, colleagues recall him saying. Cecil had submitted plans for post-Feb. 5 states, but they had been rejected. The campaign had not initially thought the nomination battle would go beyond Super Tuesday and it was out of cash. "We were running on fumes," one aide said.

Nerves were raw by this point. Penn and Grunwald engaged in a 15-minute squabble that later made it into the media over which ad to run in Virginia. He wanted an ominous one called "Freefall" that warned of bad economic times, while she wanted one called "Can Do" featuring the candidate talking against patriotic music about solving problems. Cecil grew so exasperated, he stood up and left. "This is ridiculous," he said, according to people in the room. "You guys need to grow up. You're acting like kids. I've got work to do."

A more explosive example of the stress came a few days later. Phil Singer, the campaign's deputy communications director, emerged from a meeting on Feb. 11 and without explanation started angrily cursing the war room. "[Expletive] all of you," he shouted, according to a witness, then stormed out and did not return for several days.

Penn was growing increasingly aggravated by what he saw as an untenable management structure, which another aide described as an "oligarchy at the top." Penn had no real people of his own on the inside and chafed whenever Solis Doyle or Ickes got involved in his sphere. At one point, he and Ickes, who have been battling each other within the Clinton orbit for a dozen years, lost their tempers during a conference call, according to two participants.

"[Expletive] you!" Ickes shouted.

"[Expletive] you!" Penn replied.

"[Expletive] you!" Ickes shouted again.

By now, Williams had decided it was untenable to stay unless she was really running the campaign. Clinton called Solis Doyle on Feb. 9 as she was losing three more states, and the decision was announced the next day when she lost a fourth. It was painful for both, because Solis Doyle had worked for Clinton most of her adult life. Henry, her deputy, turned in his resignation letter the next day and stayed just long enough to see out three more losses, in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

Solis Doyle built a massive organization with more than 1,000 people on the payroll virtually overnight, and she was popular with a lot of colleagues. But there was a strong faction that resented her for shutting out experienced advisers from Clinton's Senate office, including chief of staff Tamera Luzzatto, health-care specialist Laurie Rubiner, communications adviser Lorraine Voles and longtime spokesman Philippe Reines. She also irritated colleagues by running late and frequently canceling appointments, and she drew fire for the campaign's financial problems.

If Solis Doyle was like Clinton's daughter, Williams was like her sister. She let aides vent and express their views, but then quickly made decisions. She impressed aides and supporters looking for a stronger hand. "Maggie said, 'I am ready for this fight,' and the room burst out into applause," Robert Zimmerman, a top Clinton fundraiser, recalled of her introduction to supporters via speakerphone. "It reflected the desire to see the campaign really engage in an aggressive issue debate."

She inherited a campaign well behind Obama in upcoming states. "Until we got to the 6th or 7th of February, there was no Hillary Clinton campaign in Wisconsin or most other states," said Joe Wineke, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. Obama outspent Clinton on the air in Wisconsin by $1.5 million to $300,000, he said, and scored a strong victory on Feb. 19.

For all their conflicts, senior Clinton advisers agreed that the campaign hit rock bottom in Wisconsin. Only after that did the team, tattered and exhausted, begin to pick itself up. News of Clinton's loan to her campaign touched off a frenzy of Internet fundraising as supporters who assumed she had enough money rushed to contribute, the first success she has had in the sort of grass-roots fundraising Obama has mastered.

In Austin on Feb. 21, Clinton had a solid debate performance, although her aides groaned as she accused Obama of offering "change you can Xerox." The line, advisers said, was offered during debate preparation by Bruce Reed, a Clinton White House official, but onstage it came across as forced and drew boos.

In the end, ironically, it was male voters who saved Clinton. A confluence of factors in the final 10 days -- her advertising strategy, her renewed communications push, her shaken-up team -- restored her in one of her weakest demographics in Ohio and Texas. Her victories quieted talk both inside and outside the campaign that she should drop out.

Yet renewal has come so late that advisers worry it may be too difficult to overtake Obama. "There was an arrogant attitude on the part of the campaign for many months," one lamented. "And now we're in a fight for our lives."

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

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