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Mark Penn in Trouble But Who Replaces Clinton’s Guru?

When a candidate falters, the first person blamed is the chief campaign strategist. Six months ago Clinton’s top adviser Mark Penn could do no wrong. He was the guru of micro-trends, a man who understood the smallest details and nuances of the American electorate. The Washington Post dubbed him “Clinton’s Power-Pointer.”

But as Karen Tumulty reports in this week’s Time magazine, insiders at Clinton HQ are already conspiring against him, offering an off-the-record narrative blaming Penn for Hillary’s fall. The problem, as Tumulty writes, is that there is no viable candidate to replace Penn and more importantly, a strategist is only as good as the product he is selling:

The first, and easier one to grapple with, is how to deal with Obama. Even as the results in Iowa were still coming in, the Clinton campaign was mobilizing onto an attack footing. But it’s possible that the most difficult problem is not Obama; it could be Clinton. How can she retool her message — and her identity as a virtual incumbent — to resonate with an electorate that seems to yearn more for change than any other quality? Says one longtime Democratic strategist, who is close to the Clintons: “Fundamentally, she is who she is; she can’t change who she is, and maybe this is not her time.”

There are senior officials within the campaign — notably, outside advisers say, media consultant Mandy Grunwald and adviser Harold Ickes — who have been worried for months that Clinton was missing the fundamental shift in the electorate. However, their entreaties have gone nowhere. Bill and Hillary Clinton have put enormous faith in Penn, and given him veto power, aides say, over every word that goes into her television ads and every line in her mailers. “He had her and the President’s trust very deeply,” says one adviser who is close to the campaign. Adds another: “He’s a one-man shop.”

If Clinton also loses New Hampshire to Obama, Penn’s future with the campaign may well be in jeopardy, strategists say. But that may be wishful thinking on their part. For one thing, there is no obvious candidate to replace him. Hillary’s advisers and Bill’s have never gotten along — and she has been particularly suspicious of his team. “Who they both trust — that’s a very small group,” says one former Clinton aide. “She is going to be very, very resistant to all of the white boys coming back.”


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