/ 8 April 2008

Rethink for Clinton after top strategist resigns

Hillary Clinton’s faltering presidential campaign will undergo a ”mini-makeover” that will emphasise her more caring side following the departure of its main strategist, Mark Penn.

Penn’s exit, announced on Sunday, follows clashes over his outside work for other clients — notably the government of Colombia — as well as screaming matches with senior campaign staff and withering criticism of his strategy.

The CEO of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller and of the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland, Penn (53) had been the public face of the Clinton campaign as well as its chief strategist.

His withdrawal gives Clinton an opening to try to craft a new and more coherent message for the remaining primary contests, in an attempt to catch up with Barack Obama’s formidable advantage in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Democratic consultants said Clinton would gradually try to shift the focus from experience and readiness to lead — Penn’s vision for her candidacy — towards highlighting her more human side. But that does not mean she will stop using negative campaigning against Obama, a Democratic media consultant said.

”Now I think we will see a more uniform message,” he said. ”It is clearly not going to be experience — we are way past that. It could be a softer Hillary, but it might also have to be tougher on Obama. You can have both of those at the same time, a positive ad and a negative ad.”

The shift represents a victory for Mandy Grunwald, Clinton’s media adviser, as well as Penn’s replacement as pollster and message consultant, Geoffrey Garin. Grunwald and Penn have been on the opposite side of a series of blazing rows over how best to sell their candidate to voters.

Garin, who joined the campaign last month, is reported to have come down on the same side as Grunwald.

Penn had focused Clinton’s election strategy around the idea that she would be the inevitable Democratic nominee. His approach played up her long years on the political scene — despite evidence that voters were tired of Washington insiders and were hungry for change and protests from Grunwald and others that the strategy was not working.

Howard Wolfson, the communications director, will take over Penn’s role as the face of the campaign, Clinton’s campaign manager, Maggie Williams, said in a statement. Williams, who was Clinton’s chief of staff when she was first lady, will continue to manage the campaign — a role she assumed following the resignation of Patti Soli Doyle last month.

But despite the victory for Grunwald and Garin it is unlikely that any major changes to the message can be put in place in time for the Pennsylvania primary on April 22. Clinton is under pressure to rack up a big victory against Obama to narrow his lead in delegates and the popular vote, and demonstrate the continued viability of her campaign.

In an attempt to refocus media attention, Clinton on Monday called on President George Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

It is also far from certain that Penn has entirely severed his ties with the Clinton campaign — despite causing her embarrassment over his contract with the Colombian government.

Penn was employed to press for a free-trade agreement — which Clinton opposes and has become a touchstone issue for the blue-collar workers and unions she has been courting. Bush asked Congress to support the Bill on Monday.

Despite that conflict of interest, Williams said in her statement that Penn would continue to provide polling for Clinton. An insider said on Monday that Penn would continue to serve as a key adviser — but admitted that his opinions would not carry the same weight as before.

Others argued, however, that Penn’s latest blunder had merely been a pretext to end a relationship that was no longer benefiting the Clintons. Although Penn has worked with both Clintons — from the former president’s re-election campaign in 1996 to her first run for the Senate — his involvement in her campaign has caused a long streak of embarrassing episodes.

Penn has earned $13-million for his work for the Clinton campaign, while maintaining his corporate jobs. His salary had attracted deepening criticism as Clinton continued to lose ground to Obama.

But revelations that Penn was being employed to push for a free-trade deal that Clinton, and her trade-union supporters, opposed went too far.

”It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” said a Democratic media consultant. ”She already has a problem as an insider image about inconsistency in her remarks and positions.”

Garin is unlikely to attract the same level of attention. Now 54, he worked for former Nato commander General Wesley Clark during his run for the nomination in 2004. He has also worked with many Democratic members of Congress and is described as a low-profile, solid strategist with a command of intricate polling data. — Â