The Note: Penn & Tell Her

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."

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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."

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