SMALLEY: The Penn Effect

Here's NEWSWEEK's Suzanne Smalley with her take on the demotion of chief Clinton strategist Mark Penn:

Mark Penn did not have a large margin of error. For months he had been an embattled figure in the Clinton camp—somewhat socially isolated by his absent-minded professor's bearing and his prickly personality, and widely perceived to be on the wrong end of an internal debate over strategy. Penn, a former pollster for President Clinton prized for his loyalty to the family, had rejected some staffers' call to "humanize" Hillary early on, citing survey data that recommended an emphasis on her résumé and experience instead. But it was her softer, more human moments that seem to have rallied supporters and helped propel her to some of her most important victories to date. Then, after the Clinton campaign suffered through an exceptionally rough February, Penn sent a tone-deaf e-mail to the Los Angeles Times, describing himself as an "outside message adviser" with "no direct authority"—a missive that left many thinking he was trying to distance himself from the campaign he was helping to lead. He had also drawn fire for championing a big-state strategy that left Barack Obama an opening in medium and smaller states—the bricks with which he has built his significant lead in pledged delegates.

So when the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that in his capacity as worldwide CEO of the public relations and lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller Penn had met with Colombian officials who had paid his firm $300,000 to help them push through a bilateral trade agreement that Clinton opposes, the strategist didn't have a lot of allies to turn to for help. By Sunday Penn was out—a move Clinton spokesmen said was made at his behest.

How much will his exit hurt? The timing isn't great; Obama has been closing the gap in Pennsylvania of late (a new CNN summary of Pennsylvania polls shows Clinton leading Obama by just 7 points, down from 11 points Friday). And Clinton has already endured a round of bad publicity over statements she's made about a trip to Bosnia when she was First Lady and a bogus health-care story from Ohio she's told on the campaign trail. Penn's departure guarantees another long day of unhelpful chatter on cable.

But do voters really sweat the staffers? In early March Obama's economic adviser got caught meeting with Canadian officials (whom he is alleged to have assured that Obama's anti-free-trade message was just campaign rhetoric). The scandal helped Clinton crush Obama in Ohio and come from behind to win Texas. Observers are wondering if the Penn exit could have a similarly huge impact on Pennsylvania voters. The Clinton campaign seems to be aware of the potential for disaster (the strategist's firm also represents Blackwater and Countrywide), and has moved swiftly to try to stanch any bleeding.

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