Clinton's Chief Strategist Steps Down

Mark Penn, the senior strategist for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, left the campaign Sunday after it was disclosed he met with representatives of the Colombian government to promote a free trade agreement, which Clinton opposes. Video by AP
By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 7, 2008

ALBUQUERQUE, April 6 -- Mark J. Penn quit Sunday as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief strategist, the second shake-up in her campaign's top ranks since the onetime front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination began trailing Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Penn had been a polarizing figure within the Clinton campaign for months because of his personality as well as his strategic vision, but his departure came as a result of another continuing controversy -- the conflicts of interest that resulted from his representing major clients as president of Burson-Marsteller, the giant public relations firm, while working for Clinton.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Penn had met with Colombia's ambassador to the United States to discuss promotion of a free-trade agreement, one that Clinton opposes. Penn apologized Friday for an "error in judgment," and the Colombian government responded a day later by firing Burson-Marsteller.

Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton, were furious with Penn for going to the meeting, campaign officials said. Trade has been a divisive issue in the Democratic race and a particularly significant one in Pennsylvania, the next state on the primary calendar. The senator from New York has pledged to take a "timeout" from free-trade agreements until their impact on the United States becomes clearer.

"After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign," campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a statement. "Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson will coordinate the campaign's strategic message team going forward."

Penn did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

Williams took over the campaign in February after Clinton failed to grab control of the nomination race in Super Tuesday votes, and brought aboard Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster, a few weeks ago to help on message and polling. Wolfson, a longtime Clinton aide, oversaw her communications in her two Senate races before doing the same in the presidential campaign.

Garin said Sunday night that it was "way too early for me to say" whether there will be significant changes in Clinton's campaign strategy. "We've got a lot to prove, and we intend to prove it," he said.

He stressed the need for Clinton to win the final primaries, saying that doing so could have a significant effect on how Democrats evaluate the two candidates.

"The important thing is just to win," he said. "My view is the campaign has to focus on the work of April and May and the early part of June and do well at all of that. So at one level, first things first."

Until last week, Penn had enjoyed an extraordinarily close relationship with both Clintons, having served the former president in the 1996 reelection campaign and through his impeachment. That relationship helped him weather repeated criticism from others in the campaign.

When he signed up with Hillary Clinton as chief strategist, some Democrats were concerned about his relatively hawkish views on foreign policy -- he is staunchly pro-Israel and centrist -- and his tendency to keep an eye toward the general election rather than on the primaries.

Penn, a sometimes rumpled and often argumentative figure, struggled from the start with the awkward management structure of the Clinton campaign. Tensions escalated with each of her defeats: Some complained that he was too data-driven and obstinate, and he was blamed for the failure to "humanize" the candidate in the early days of the race. Penn also kept an office in the sleek Burson-Marsteller offices in Washington, apart from the campaign headquarters in Arlington.

Joe Trippi, a senior adviser for the presidential campaign of former senator John Edwards (N.C.), said Penn's decision to keep leading Burson-Marsteller while working for Clinton never made much sense.

"The only real question was, why did it not happen sooner?" Trippi said of Penn's ouster. "The conflicts have been a problem for the campaign from the start."

Yet Penn also wrote perhaps the most familiar ad of the campaign to date, titled "3 a.m.," which helped propel her to critical primary victories last month in Ohio and Texas.

Clinton officials stressed that Penn's departure came about because of a lapse in judgment, not because of differences over campaign strategy. But the officials did not discount that, as a result of his lesser role, Wolfson and Garin may end up steering the campaign in some different directions.

Democratic consultants outside the campaign echoed those thoughts, with one, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, predicting "a less combative campaign and more focused on her strengths."

Penn's precise role going forward remained unclear Sunday night. Williams said Clinton will continue to use his polling firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates. But campaign aides said he would certainly have a much-diminished voice inside the campaign. They also predicted a far less stressful environment. "People like Howard and Geoff," one adviser said. "I presume there will be less strife."

Garin credited Clinton with providing some of the necessary ballast to right the operation, amid the months of internal bickering and frayed relations among senior advisers, and keeping its focus on the battles ahead.

"There are a lot of candidates who sap the strength from the campaign and there are a few who give strength to the campaign, and she's totally been a figure of strength in this campaign," he said. "Sometimes under trying circumstances."

Balz reported from Washington. staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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