Rumpled Mark Penn, Clinton Pollster, Goes Back to Battle

But as liberal Democratic primary voters, infuriated over President Bush’s policies and the war, have clamored for red meat, Mrs. Clinton’s rhetoric has taken on unmistakably populist notes, especially when she talks about society’s “invisibles.”

“I think that’s what’s right for these times,” Mr. Penn said.

It is also a time in which Democrats are denied much room for nuance on the war in Iraq. Mrs. Clinton, who originally opposed hard deadlines for troop withdrawals and defended the power of the presidential prerogative, has since become vociferously antiwar.

She has not, however, apologized for her 2002 vote to authorize the war, as many in the base of the party would like, and as her opponent John Edwards has.

Mr. Penn, naturally, is confident that this is the right course.

“I’m not sure that I understand the concept that if a candidate gives an apology, he is suddenly not responsible for his vote,” said Mr. Penn. “Edwards was a co–sponsor of the resolution; if you go through Edwards’ speeches he was extremely pro-war. And in many ways, after they hear him apologize, people don’t ask him what he was really thinking and what he was doing. She’s not hiding.”

Mr. Penn bristles at the notion Mrs. Clinton’s incremental movement towards an antiwar position—a movement that tracks closely with public opinion—reflects a close reliance on polls.

“Clearly, polling is a part of the campaign, but it’s not the driving force of the campaign,” he said.

In fact, Mr. Penn firmly believes that polls are a force for good government—he would like to see a “public desk” in the White House—and he rejects assertions from strategists like Mr. Shrum, among others, that candidates who win elections based on small-bore poll-informed tactics lack a true mandate.

“That’s ridiculous,” Mr. Penn said. “Getting elected is a mandate for what you stood for in the campaign.”

 

MR. PENN, OSTENSIBLY A BACKROOM operative, maintains an unusually high profile in national Democratic professional and social circles. He and his second wife, Nancy Jacobson Penn, a Democratic fund-raiser who used to work for Evan Bayh, throw parties for the city’s elite in a $5 million home in Georgetown, where the couple currently live with their 5-year-old daughter. (Mr. Penn has three other children with his first wife.)

In July, the family celebrated Mr. Schoen’s new memoir, and they have hosted the Clintons and just about every Democratic power player in town.

And Mr. Penn’s elite status is reflected in his elite income: Penn, Schoen & Berland has made about $700,000 from the Clinton campaign in consulting and polling fees so far this year.

His roots are considerably earthier. His father immigrated from Vilna, Lithuania, became an organizer in the city’s poultry union and, eventually, ran a Kosher poultry plant in upstate New York. His parents spoke Yiddish at home.

After his father’s death from cancer in 1964, his mother, Blanche, raised him while substitute-teaching in city elementary schools. As a decidedly unathletic, stamp-collecting 10-year-old, Mr. Penn often ended up grading the papers of her students.

Mr. Penn, along with his two brothers (one became a gastroenterologist in New Jersey, the other now owns a poultry plant outside Atlanta), moved from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx to Riverdale, where he attended the exclusive Horace Mann School. Both brothers, in interviews for this story, credited Mr. Penn with keeping things together for the household and for their grieving mother.

At school, Mr. Penn was president of the Debate Society and editor of the school paper, which he took daily for a week. The first poll he ever conducted, at age 13, was on race relations, he recalled. But the one he got in trouble for was a survey of how many students smoked marijuana.

“The trustees went crazy that I published this in the paper,” he said.