If campaigns have 3 a.m. moments, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- this call's for you.
Add Mark Penn's (belated) (partial) ouster to the growing pile of distractions weighing down the Clinton campaign -- contributing to a delegate-count-Bosnia-tax-return-stump-speech-fabricating haze.
At the time that Camp Clinton needs the focus to remain squarely on Sen. Barack Obama, all we're talking about is Clinton -- and, most damaging, it's her credibility (not his) that's coming in for scrutiny.
And with the reins of new responsibility falling to Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson, Penn's ouster gives the campaign a chance for a fresh start -- if it isn't already too late.
In the end, it wasn't Iowa, or the big-state strategy, or even the fateful decision to run as an incumbent in a year that's big on change that hastened the undoing of Penn, the architect of Clinton's image and the author of the "3 a.m." ads.
"Senator Hillary Clinton made the decision to push out senior strategist Mark Penn from her campaign Sunday after key aides became concerned that his outside work on a Colombian free-trade agreement that Clinton opposes might risk alienating key labor unions," per ABC's Eloise Harper, Kate Snow, and Jake Tapper.
Clinton aides "they are hanging on to the slim possibility that the steelworkers might decide to endorse Clinton. Aides were deeply concerned that allowing Penn to stay on the job would kill that possibility."
It was an old-fashioned conflict of interest -- the type Penn's critics have long warned about, and one that might have particular relevance in labor-heavy Pennyslvania -- that ultimately brought the end of his formal role inside the Clinton campaign. Penn's work on the Colombia deal that emerged last week was the last of many, many straws.
"His latest actions with Colombia, in leaving Sen. Clinton vulnerable to the same charges of hypocrisy that her campaign leveled against Sen. Obama in Ohio, apparently undercut that base of support" inside the campaign, Jackie Calmes writes in The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story of Penn's work on behalf of the Colombia deal last week.
This was a long time coming.
"Many rivals within the campaign held Mr. Penn responsible for the flawed electoral strategy that is considered partly to blame for Mrs. Clinton's difficult political position, trailing Mr. Obama by more than a hundred delegates and facing a very narrow path to winning the Democratic nomination," John M. Broder writes in The New York Times.
"His strategy -- emphasizing Mrs. Clinton's strength and experience -- has been controversial for months," Broder writes. "Critics have complained that his approach allowed Mr. Obama to seize the larger theme of change that has come to define the 2008 election. As the former first lady's initial approach failed to blunt Mr. Obama's rise, Mr. Penn increasingly favored tougher attacks; some colleagues argued internally that they would be counterproductive."
Per Mark Halperin of Time and ABC News, "it is impossible to overstate how fundamental a change this represents in Clinton's campaign. Penn has had almost full autonomy to make major decisions involving what the candidate says, where she goes, and what gets conveyed in her advertisements. Even as many in the campaign had turned sour on Penn, he reportedly enjoyed the confidence of both Hillary and Bill Clinton."
The former president finally had enough: "Sources told Newsday that the Colombia story was the last straw for Bill Clinton, a longtime Penn defender who had for months resisted calls to replace the pollster after a series of embarrassing episodes and questionable advice," Newsday's Glenn Thrush writes.
But will it matter to Big Labor that the campaign is keeping Penn in its orbit, for polling and advice? James Hoffa answers no: "Title demotion doesn't indicate loss of influence," a Hoffa spokeswoman, Leigh Strope, tells the New York Sun's Josh Gerstein.
"He really should have been fired," one Clinton aide tells the Los Angeles Times' Noam Levey.
At the very least, few of the remaining staffers are likely to be broken up over this. "Penn, a sometimes rumpled and often argumentative figure, struggled from the start with the awkward management structure of the Clinton campaign," Anne Kornblut and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post.
"Tensions escalated with each of her defeats: Some complained that he was too data-driven and obstinate, and he was blamed for the failure to 'humanize' the candidate in the early days of the race."
"As the Democratic contest reaches a climax, at least morale inside the Clinton bunker will soar," the New York Daily News' Thomas DeFrank reports. "The pollster who demanded the title of chief campaign strategist ran a high-powered public relations firm on the side, but needed a personal PR guy himself. His arrogant, peremptory style made him widely reviled in senior levels of the Clinton campaign."
Yet even beyond Penn, in this final two weeks before Pennsylvania (finally) votes, Clinton is forcing herself to play defense.
There was the Bosnia embellishment, and now there's this line from Clinton: "I actually starting criticizing the war in Iraq before he did," she said Saturday on the trail. Writes ABC's Jake Tapper, "The misrepresentation of the record is symbolic of the re-writing of history Clinton has attempted on her record regarding the war in Iraq."
That gasp-inducing story about the woman who died because she couldn't afford the $100 hospital fee? Maybe not exactly. "Hospital administrators said Friday that Ms. Bachtel was under the care of an obstetrics practice affiliated with the hospital, that she was never refused treatment and that she was, in fact, insured," Deborah Sontag reported Saturday in The New York Times.
And how does this play among the only audience that counts anymore? (Keep in mind that demonstrably more than half of Democrats who have weighed in so far have done so on behalf of Obama.)
There's nothing like a casual comparison between Obama and President Bush to get ears to perk up. "He gave a lot of speeches about how he was going to be a compassionate conservative," Clinton said of candidate Bush in Oregon, per ABC's Eloise Harper.
"Well, because we didn't have the specifics to tie him down because we didn't say 'What exactly does that mean?' It turns out he was neither compassionate nor conservative. He was uncompassionate and radical."
Maybe this is fair play, but maybe it turns off as many as it convinces. "Sen. Hillary Clinton made a blunt appeal to North Dakota delegates to switch their support to her, despite the fact that Sen. Barack Obama handily defeated her in the state's caucus in February," ABC's Eloise Harper and Sunlen Miller report.
But it's Obama who's picking up early-week support: Margaret Campbell, a state lawmaker in Montana and a Democratic superdelegate, plans to make her endorsement public Monday, The New York Times' John Harwood reports. "[Obama] aides said time was actually in Mr. Obama's favor. The longer he demonstrates he can withstand the heat of a national campaign, they say, the more willing party leaders seem to be to embrace him."
Perhaps the superdelegates who are still on the fence will stay there a while. Despite the trickle in Obama's direction, "few others of the party's uncommitted superdelegates appear likely to budge before Pennsylvania's primary on April 22 -- and many have indicated that they will wait until the primaries end in June before picking a candidate," Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post.
But once the evidence is in, what's left to keep the jury out? This prediction from Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., a leading Obama supporter: "As a practical matter, I believe this race will be over by Friday, June 6."
That's the advice from former DNC chair Paul Kirk: "Once the contests are over, do the math," Kirk writes in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed, in an open letter to his fellow superdelegates.
"By mid-June, we must unite behind the candidate who has won the most delegates under a process we all understood and approved in advance. After eight years of Bush-Cheney, if we cannot unite our constituencies behind the Democratic nominee, shame on us!"
The New Republic's Jonathan Chait does the math: "Does Clinton have a chance to become president? Sure. So does Ralph Nader. Clinton's chances are far closer to Nader's than to either Obama's or John McCain's."
As to who gets to (eventually) deliver the news that may or may not be inevitable, Newsweek's Suzanne Smalley and Evan Thomas nominate "Rahmbo." Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., may be "the most obvious candidate," given his ties to both Clinton and Obama, they write. Says Emanuel (and interpret away): "I have a sneaking suspicion it's over after North Carolina and Indiana [May 6]. . . . It will be clear by then who the presumptive nominee is."
Emanuel adds (and picture him saying this when you read the quote): "This has got to come to an end by June. It has to be over and it will be over."
And yet . . . Obama has not closed the deal. Some superdelegates -- including many of the ones who agree with Sen. Jim Webb's, D-Va., endorsement of "independent judgment" -- remain concerned about the Jeremiah Wright affair, and are looking to the (white) voters in the states that come for cues.
"There is evidence of lingering damage" from Wright, The Wall Street Journal's Nick Timiraos reports. Says David Parker, an uncommitted superdelegate from North Carolina: "I'm concerned about seeing Willie Horton ads during the general election."
Don't underestimate the power of self-interest: "Unlike the average voter, lawmakers up for reelection also have their own political self-interest at stake in who ascends to the top of the ticket," Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times. "The party's nominee can provide either coattails or head winds."
The week's biggest campaign event isn't a campaign event at all. When Gen. David Petraeus comes to Capitol Hill Tuesday, he'll find all three major presidential candidates waiting for him there -- with different goals in mind.
"The one-on-ones with the war's key American military and diplomatic figures are probably their last public chance to engage these officials for months, and the Qs and As should offer not only insight into the candidates' thinking on the war, but also into how they'd deal with those in charge of the conflict," McClatchy's David Lightman reports.
Don't expect Clinton or Obama to speak until late afternoon -- one of them will soon be the party standard-bearer, but Senate rules break for no one. "In the ideological duel that will unfold tomorrow, [Sen. John] McCain will have a distinct logistical advantage, Republicans are quick to note," Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post.
"As the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, he will deliver the second statement and the second set of questions, and will have the right to interject at will. Allies said he is likely to toss out Clinton's statement from the September hearing that it would take 'a willing suspension of disbelief' to accept Petraeus's security assessment, and Clinton -- lacking seniority -- will only be able to watch."
McCain's presidential prospects have already been shaped by Petraeus, USA Today's David Jackson points out. "McCain's outspoken support for Petraeus and his strategy that has reduced violence in Iraq has helped him become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee," Jackson writes. "This week, he plays a key role in a new round of Petraeus hearings to be held in the shadow of presidential politics."
McCain tees up the Petraeus hearing with a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters in Kansas City on Monday, at 10:45 am ET.
"There is no doubt about the basic reality in Iraq: we are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success," McCain plans to say, per his campaign.
The money quote: "I do not believe that anyone should make promises as a candidate for President that they cannot keep if elected. To promise a withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, regardless of the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests, and the future of the Middle East, is the height of irresponsibility. It is a failure of leadership."
McCain, R-Ariz., just might have a campaign to referee. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is seeking out the vice presidency, Republican strategist Dan Senor said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." Citing a visit to Grover Norquist's "Wednesday Meeting," Senor said, "Condi Rice has been actively, actually in recent weeks, campaigning for this."
McCain says he didn't notice. "I did not hear that. I missed those signals," he told reporters Sunday, per ABC's Jan Simmonds. He offered praise for Rice but on McCain's pecking order to blame for failings in the Iraq strategy, Donald Rumsfeld heads the list, followed by Rice "and to a lesser degree Secretary [Colin] Powell," McCain said.
McCain is set to address concerns about his age head-on, per the New York Daily News' David Saltonstall.
"Team McCain is quietly starting to get serious about confronting the age issue -- it plans to convene an unusual meeting of the senator's doctors next month to answer questions about his health," Saltonstall reported Sunday. (And his cholesterol stands at a Vytorin-aided 155.)
(Look for his medical records to accompany his tax returns in the next week or so.)
The Wall Street Journal's Laura Meckler picks up on a "strong populist streak" coming from McCain on the housing crisis, "blasting what he called the 'outrageous' and 'unconscionable' compensation of Bear Stearns and Countrywide executives and their 'co-conspirators.' "
Writes Meckler, "It is part of Sen. John McCain's effort to show anger at the people behind the housing crisis and sympathy for those who are facing foreclosure, while remaining skeptical of proposals that would commit the federal government to aggressive action to help them."
On a slow day for the Democratic candidates, Bill Clinton is hitting Puerto Rico.
The old Swift boat crew is ready for a reunion, The Boston Globe's Scott Helman writes.
"Some of the same GOP donors and operatives are planning a similar independent group to help the party hold onto the White House this fall," according to Republicans familiar with the discussions. "One Republican strategist familiar with the plans said Republicans expect Senator Barack Obama, who leads rival Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race, to be their opponent and have begun assembling material to turn voters against him."
But on the Democratic side, things are slower-going.
"Democratic talk of an early, hard-hitting campaign to 'define' and tar Arizona Sen. John McCain appears to have fizzled for lack of money, leading to a quiet round of finger-pointing among Democratic operatives and donors as McCain assembles a campaign and a public image relatively unmolested," Politico's Ben Smith reports.
"While news releases and Internet ads have been launched, the largest-bore weapon in contemporary politics -- a sustained television campaign -- hasn't. That's because, people involved say, the soft-money groups don't have the soft money."
The DNC tries to fill that void with another installment of McCain vs. McCain.
How did the Clintons minimize the impact of stories about growing fabulously wealthy in the post-presidential years? "Hillary and Bill Clinton got rich in the seven years since they left the White House, and by paying plenty of taxes and giving a large chunk to charity, they may avoid the criticism expected with the release of such detailed financial information," Bloomberg's Alison Fitzgerald writes.
"The Clintons, who earned $109 million in eight years, gave about 10 percent of their income to their charitable foundation and paid almost a third in federal taxes, forgoing many of the strategies such as trusts that wealthy people use to cut their tax bills."
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter pushes back at those questioning why a black elected official would endorse Clinton over Obama. "All black folks don't eat fried chicken or eat watermelon. When do we make some progress here?" he tells the Philadelphia Inquirer's Marcia Gelbart.
The "dream ticket" gets its own Website on Monday: http://www.voteboth.com/
Politifact slogs through the library documents and newspaper accounts to document Clinton's foreign travels as first lady -- 82 countries in all, in a handy interactive map. http://politifact.com/media/travel.html
DNC Chairman Howard Dean said Sunday that no deal on Florida and Michigan will be possible until after the last round of voting takes place, in South Dakota and Montana June 3.
But Clinton has a plan for Michigan and Florida: Just let those votes count (under the new math of the popular vote being her last best strategy). "The popular vote in Florida and Michigan has already been counted. It was determined by election results. It was certified by election officials in each state. It's been officially tallied by the secretary of state in each state," Clinton said Saturday in Oregon, per ABC's Eloise Harper.
Obama got himself a regrettable souvenir on his trip to North Dakota. Per ABC's Sunlen Miller and Jan Simmonds, "A comment made by radio talk show host Ed Schultz at a North Dakota Democratic Party fundraiser that Sen. Barack Obama attended Friday night in Grand Forks, N.D. is getting some heat." Schultz called McCain a "warmonger," a comment the campaign distanced itself from.
Former rep. Bob Barr has formed a presidential exploratory committee, he told a national gathering of Libertarians on Saturday. "If there are 'sufficient numbers' of people behind a Bob Barr presidential race, he's running, the former Republican said," per Rhonda Cook of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It sets up a showdown with former senator Mike Gravel. "If nominated, Barr could be the most successful Libertarian presidential candidate in the party's 37-year history -- and John McCain's worst nightmare," W. James Antle III writes in the American Spectator. "Barr can potentially appeal to disgruntled conservatives who see the choice of McCain or the Democrats as analogous to picking between being punched in the stomach or kneed in the groin."
Coming Monday to ABC NewsNow: "The Girlfriends' Guide to Politics -- Brought to You by the Women of ABC News." It's a one-hour roundtable discussion hosted by ABC's Cokie Roberts. Take a look at the preview here.
"Do you do you realize how much longer it takes me to get ready than my two opponents? . . . I think I should get points for working as hard as I do, plus having to spend so much time getting ready." -- Hillary Clinton, on the hair-prep gap.
"It will have a place of honor in my office, but I promise you I will not wield it because my hockey game is worse than my bowling." -- Barack Obama, accepting a hockey stick by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
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