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« This Week On PN Radio | Blog Home Page | IN All Tied Up »

Morning Thoughts: Penn, Axed

Good Monday morning. Sorry about the late post. Major computer problems plague Politics Nation. The Detroit Tigers, expected to be one of the best teams in baseball this year, have now started the season with six straight losses. That's no way to make it to a World Series. Here in Washington, where the hometown Nationals are a game under .500 after seven outings, here's what folks are paying attention to:

-- The Senate is back today for a period of morning business before taking up the housing bill on which Senators on both sides think they have reached an important deal. Backers of the bill expect it to pass later this week, though no roll call votes will happen today. The House is out of session. President Bush, back in Washington after a weekend summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, holds a meeting with small business owners to discuss the economic stimulus package. Later, the president hangs out with the Louisiana State University Tigers, last year's number one college football team.

-- The big news today -- news that could dominate the week -- revolves around a short statement Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams released last night: "After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as Chief Strategist of the Clinton Campaign; Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign. Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson will coordinate the campaign's strategic message team going forward," the statement said, sent around 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time last night.

-- Penn's ouster comes after meeting with representatives of the Colombian Embassy over the pending trade treaty, a measure Clinton opposes and has said she will vote against should it get to the Senate floor. As first reported by the Wall Street Journal's Susan Davis last week in his capacity as chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, his public relations and crisis communications firm in Washington. Later, Penn called the meeting an error in judgment, a statement that the Colombian government took as an insult. That cost him a $300,000 per year contract. Now, he's out as top strategist, replaced by pollster Garin and one-time rival Wolfson.

-- While Penn is said to have been asked to be removed in the statement, word quickly leaked that that wasn't exactly the case. Clinton herself was furious after learning about the contract, the New York Times and ABC News report. The Colombian meeting is not the only reason Penn raised hackles: Long a lightening rod, he's clashed with top aides who have disagreed with his strategy, one which got Clinton into a hundred-plus delegate hole and let Obama grab the front-runner's mantle. Several aides were just looking for an excuse to show Penn the door.

-- Former rivals of Penn's, long egged on by Clinton's top pollster, reveled in their glee. "He has pretty much called the shots" in the last decade of Clinton campaigns, Barack Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod said on "Morning Joe" on MSNBC. Of the news Penn was gone, he said: "It's kind of stunning." Meanwhile, Joe Trippi, a top adviser to John Edwards, said he was surprised the move didn't come sooner, especially given Penn's conflicts between his firm and the campaign, which had arisen before. "The conflicts have been a problem for the campaign from the start," Trippi told The Fix.

-- So what's the real fallout? After Patti Solis Doyle left the campaign in favor of Williams, Clinton went on to win her next goal, the Texas and Ohio primaries. If Garin and Wolfson can help her win Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina and other contests moving forward, they will have proved the move to oust Penn did not come too late. If they fail to do so, Penn will shoulder the blame for losing a campaign that was supposed to be a cakewalk. Many have noted that Penn insisted on being called the chief strategist, and now he finds out where the buck stops: Credit for success goes to other people, while credit for failure lands with him. Not all is negative, though: As an added bonus, much of Garin's polling career and that of his firm have happened around the three coming states, and theirs is one of the few Democratic firms with actual wins in those states.

-- John McCain will spend the next few weeks focusing on the economy, including offering a major address on Tax Day, April 15, in Pittsburgh, as campaign manager Rick Davis told Politics Nation. But sometimes, the real world intrudes, and this week is all about events none of the three candidates can control. Tomorrow, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will visit Capitol Hill to offer their assessments of Iraq six months after their last check-in. That last set of hearings were marked by two occurrences: MoveOn.org displaying an ad accusing Petraeus of betrayal, and the beginning of the resurgence of McCain's campaign, two events that are not entirely separate from each other.

-- The candidates don't show up for a lot of committee hearings, but they will this time, the Washington Post writes. Obama sits as the seventh of eleven Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee, headed by former candidate Joe Biden; Obama will quiz the two after supporters Chris Dodd, John Kerry and Russ Feingold get their turns. When Petraeus and Crocker get to the Armed Services Committee, McCain will be the second to ask questions as the committee's ranking Republican, just behind chairman Carl Levin of Michigan. Clinton, the tenth of thirteen Democrats in terms of seniority, will get the chance to ask her own questions later.

-- Bizarre Claim Of The Day: Condoleezza Rice is really interested in the vice presidency, ABC's Mary Bruce reports. According to Dan Senor, a former Coalition Provisional Authority official and now a Republican strategist, Rice's attendance at Americans for Tax Reform's weekly Wednesday meeting two weeks back raised eyebrows, and was viewed by some as the beginning of an effort to cozy up to conservatives who would have to give tacit approval of her nomination. As many who have written in to advocate for Rice know, Politics Nation doesn't think the Secretary of State is an option for the simple reason that she's involved in the current administration, a group of folks that McCain wants to distance himself from as fast as possible. But, at least it's a topic that's being discussed among a few Republicans. Will it merit a Novak mention?

-- Today On The Trail: John McCain is at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, where he will address members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in what Davis told Politics Nation will be a major speech on the war in Iraq. Bill Clinton is in Puerto Rico, where he will campaign in Barceloneta, Salinas and Ponce. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are both taking a day off the trail before heading to Washington to hear from Petraeus and Crocker.