Removing the Clinton Strategist

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Win McNamee / Getty

Clinton strategist Mark Penn in New Hampshire in January

Clarification Appended: April 7, 2008

Mark Penn, the strategist with near-total control over Hillary Clinton's campaign message and strategy since its inception, gave up his senior role under pressure, her campaign announced on Sunday night. The stunning announcement came after it was revealed Friday that Penn, in his capacity as worldwide CEO of the lobbying firm Burson-Marsteller, had held discussions with officials from Colombia on a bilateral free-trade agreement. Clinton has said she is against such a pact. While campaigning for the Ohio primary, Clinton had assailed Barack Obama's campaign for what she said was its tacit collusion with Canada over NAFTA, another controversial free-trade pact that she has said needs to be renegotiated.

Penn has been a controversial figure throughout the campaign, alienating colleagues with his brusque manner and pursuing a strategy emphasizing Clinton's toughness, experience, and electability, at a time when most analysts in both parties see an electorate demanding change.

Although the campaign's statement announcing Penn's departure as chief strategist suggested he would continue to give advice to her effort, 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. Indeed, he survived a fierce barrage of criticism in January after she came in third in the Iowa caucuses. But now, facing intense pressure, he has see his role reduced — although just how much is a matter of intense debate in political circles, and even among her own staff.

The campaign statement simply said, ""After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as Chief Strategist of the Clinton Campaign." It said that long-time Democratic pollster Geoff Garin and Clinton's communications director Howard Wolfson would share Penn's role.

The original version of this article stated that Mark Penn left the Clinton campaign Sunday. Although Penn did relinquish his formal role as chief strategist, he is continuing to play a role doing polling for and providing advice to the campaign, among other responsibilities.