Will Penn's Exit Hurt Hillary?

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.

Campaign manager Maggie Williams said Geoff Garin, who only recently joined the campaign, and longtime Clinton communications guru Howard Wolfson will share primary responsibility for message strategy going forward. While Penn had limited involvement in the campaign's strategy for winning over superdelegates—now the most crucial front in Clinton's battle to wrest the nomination from Obama—he has been a decisive player in the message team, and he wrote the so-called "3 a.m." ad that focused on Clinton's national security strength and is credited with helping her come from behind to win Texas and Ohio. One campaign official, who requested anonymity when discussing internal campaign strategy, told NEWSWEEK that Penn had few allies left and that no one in the campaign's upper echelon believed that the candidate should stress experience at the expense of humanity to the degree that he did. The official said that Clinton, who has long been loyal to Penn even as others called for his head, was convinced to let him go by top aide Harold Ickes and adviser Tina Flournoy, an assistant to the head of the American Federation of Teachers who has strong ties to labor. "In particular, with the steelworkers' endorsement very much in play, it was unsustainable," the adviser said of keeping Penn on. Like Ohio, broad swaths of Pennsylvania have seen jobs dry up as free trade has moved manufacturing work across the border, voters believe. (Penn declined comment.)

Marco Trbovich, a spokesman for the United Steelworkers, said that the union will begin reviewing responses from the two candidates this week and after doing so will discuss whether to endorse Clinton or Obama—a prize that carries with it the support of 70,000 rank-and-file members. Trbovich said Penn's business interests have been an issue within the union for some time. "There have been some long-standing concerns about Mark Penn, who runs an anti-union business inside his firm," Trbovich said. "That's been disturbing, and the news about the relationship with the Colombian government is of course very concerning." He stressed that he can't speak for the union's executive board about the effect Penn's meeting might have on the union's endorsement decision because they are beginning a formal review process. But Trbovich did say that the union's overall membership believes "there's a moral component with Colombia because of the assassination of a number of trade unionists … We are deeply and fundamentally opposed to a Colombian trade agreement, because it would represent a surrender to our basic commitment to human rights."

Will Penn's activities affect the steelworkers' endorsement? And will Clinton's decision to remove him—something Obama did not do when his economic adviser got caught talking to the Canadians—be enough to undo the damage? Privately an official close to the steelworkers' union suggests it might be too late. "How much of this would have been revealed if it hadn't been exposed [by the media]?" the official wondered. "And why is someone like that working for the campaign in the first place?"