Clinton chief strategist steps aside

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, waging an intense fight for working-class voters in Pennsylvania, replaced her chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, on Sunday following the disclosure that he was working to push a trade deal that Clinton opposes.

"After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist," Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a statement released Sunday evening.

Williams said Penn and his consulting firm, Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, would continue to conduct polling for Clinton and provide advice to the campaign. But Williams said that communications director Howard Wolfson and pollster Geoff Garin would take the lead on plotting strategy going forward.

Penn, who also serves as chief executive of the giant public relations and lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller, met with Colombian officials last week to help develop a strategy to move the Colombian Free Trade agreement through Congress. Clinton and Democratic rival Barack Obama oppose the deal.

Penn later issued a statement apologizing for the meeting, calling it an "error in judgment that will not be repeated." The Colombian government announced Saturday that it had fired Burson-Marsteller.

News of the meeting, first reported Friday by the Wall Street Journal, comes as Clinton campaigns aggressively for votes in Pennsylvania before its April 22 primary. The New York senator is locked in a tight battle with Obama for the Democratic nomination, and she has made the economy a key issue.

Clinton is ahead in most polls in the state, but she has seen her lead over Obama shrink in recent weeks.

"Mark Penn has been a controversial figure within the Clinton campaign for quite a while," said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, "but the latest developments were very damaging to Hillary Clinton's message, particularly in Pennsylvania, where the concerns among working-class Democrats for these trade agreements run very strong."

Last week, Clinton told the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO that the United States must enact new trade policies before it enters into new trade deals.

"That includes no trade deal with Colombia while violence against trade unionists continues in that country," she said.

Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton declined to comment on Penn's departure. Clinton has paid Penn's consulting firm $10.8 million so far.

Penn's removal marks the second significant shakeup in the Clinton campaign in recent months. In February, Clinton replaced longtime aide Patti Solis Doyle as campaign manager.

Colombia agreed last year to pay Burson-Marsteller $300,000 to help "educate members of the U.S. Congress" about the trade deal and secure continued U.S. funding for a $5 billion anti-narcotics program, according to Justice Department filings.

Contributing: Associated Press