The Men Behind Clinton, Obama

I'm not a big believer in the idea of presidential candidates as creatures of their handlers. Their backgrounds and personalities are much more reliable indicators of how they perform than the guys whispering in their ears. But in an age of James Carville and Karl Rove, it helps to know a little something about the chief strategists in the candidates' corners.

As it happens, I've known Mark Penn of the Clinton campaign since college (that's 33 years) and David Axelrod of the Obama campaign since he was a Chicago Tribune reporter covering Gary Hart (24 years ago), which makes us all balding characters out of "That '70s Show." Their differences heighten the contrast between their two campaigns, one an establishment, by-the-numbers bid based in Washington, D.C., the other a more-visionary insurgency out of Chicago. Restoration versus Inspiration.

This season, Penn is probably best known for being rebuked by an Edwards aide on "Hardball" after The Des Moines Register debate for conspicuously slipping the word "cocaine" into the discussion of Obama, who had admitted in his autobiography that he used drugs in high school. After Benazir Bhutto was killed, Axelrod took some heat for trying to link the Iraq war (supported by Hillary) to deteriorating conditions in Pakistan that helped make the assassination possible.

Hillary's man Penn is a pollster by profession and the quintessential Beltway guy. Obama's "Axe," who has been with him since the early 1990s, is a hardheaded reformer who made his reputation as a media consultant with TV ads focused on character. Penn's weapon is his brain; Axelrod's is his gut.

Penn, whose Harvard nickname was "Pig-Penn," is one of those deeply shy guys who cover it with coldness. He has the IQ of a Bill Gates and the "EQ" (emotional intelligence) of an eggplant. His awkwardness makes him an especially strange choice to be CEO of Burson-Marsteller, one of the largest public-relations firms in the world, but the company (which represents Blackwater, predatory lenders and a few anti-union companies) obviously values him for his grasp of the "science" of selling tarnished products.

When Penn first joined the Clintons in 1996, he and Dick Morris (working out of the infamous Jefferson Hotel suite where Morris later sucked the toes of a prostitute) helped President Clinton get re-elected by identifying swing-vote "soccer moms." Four years later, Al Gore fired him as his pollster for simultaneously telling Gore that he was unlikable and that the country did not suffer from "Clinton Fatigue." The campaigns he has run have almost all been failures, including Joe Lieberman's for president. While Hillaryland includes a wide range of advisers, the Clintons depend on Penn to keep them in touch with what America is thinking.

Penn's new book, "Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes," is aimed at businesses trying to sell to tiny but lucrative markets, like left-handers, couples who treat their pets as children, Christian Jew-lovers and people who hate the sun. But it reflects the Clinton campaign's larger (or smaller) view. "This book is about the niching of America," Penn writes. "How there is no One America anymore, or Two or Three or Eight. In fact, there are hundreds of Americas, hundreds of new niches made up of people drawn together by common interests."

Not exactly an Obama man.

Penn's lack of feel for the emotions of politics nearly got him demoted after Iowa. (In the meantime, he had trashed the professionalism of The Des Moines Register's pre-caucus pollster who called the race almost perfectly.) But after New Hampshire, his much-maligned pre-primary claim that the Iowa "bounce" was nonexistent turned out to be uncannily accurate.

I met Axelrod when we were both covering Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign. I was a NEWSWEEK cub, he an exceptionally perceptive reporter for the Chicago Tribune. A transplanted New Yorker whose father had committed suicide, Axelrod has a slightly tragic air about him, compounded by his daughter's long struggle with debilitating epilepsy. In one of those painful twists that are common in the tight world of Democratic politics, Hillary Clinton has over the years been his stalwart ally in raising money to fight the disease.

Axelrod was once described by a local magazine as an "exotic rodent," but he's more like a sad-eyed mutt--a cross between a sophisticated Daley operative (who counts Rahm Emanuel as a close friend) and a dogged liberal committed to racial healing. For a hired gun who has made his share of negative ads both in Illinois and elsewhere, he's a decent and idealistic guy.

Besides helping to run the late senator Paul Simon's 1988 presidential bid, Axelrod's only experience in national politics came in 2004 when Elizabeth Edwards pushed him out of her husband's campaign because he wouldn't make ads her way. He prefers man-on-the-street ads that look almost like newscasts and touch on character.

Although he doesn't operate out of the campaign headquarters in downtown Chicago (he prefers his own office, filled with valuable political memorabilia, on Orleans Street), Axelrod is more dominant in Obama's campaign than Penn is in Hillary's. He hand-picked the campaign manager, David Plouffe, and is second only to Michelle Obama in enjoying the candidate's trust. For a time, decisions were too centralized with him, but he has loosened up in recent months.

Axelrod's strength is that he understood early that "turning the page" would be the animating theme in 2008. He caught the deeper rhythms of the campaign better than the competition. Where Axelrod falls short is on policy prescriptions. Like a lot of operatives, he doesn't think they're terribly important. But Obama's biggest cheers on the campaign trail come when he gets specific in explaining what he would do as president.

Hillary owed her New Hampshire victory to a new emotional connection, a backlash among women and the truckload of last-minute distortions dumped by the Clintons on Obama (on everything from abortion to the Iraq War). But the endless list of specifics that have led Hillary to be dubbed the "laundry lady" was also a factor. It was not a good sign for Obama that Penn & Co., recognizing Hillary's advantage among working-class voters, beat him to the punch last week in outlining an economic-stimulus package.

Penn and Axelrod dislike each other. Penn goes for condescension, arguing that Axelrod is running a professorial Adlai Stevenson-style campaign, disconnected from the core interests of voters. Axelrod considers Penn the embodiment of everything that's wrong with the Democratic Party. They may both be right, though that doesn't take us any closer to which of their bosses will win.