He added that in many of the places she won, voters “saw her strength and leadership and thought she was the best person to manage the economy and be commander in chief. And these would be the strongest attributes to enable such a victory.”
Like just about everyone else in the Clinton campaign, Mr. Penn blames unfair press coverage for some of Mrs. Clinton’s problems.
“There’s a phenomenon in which Senator Obama has run a harshly negative campaign,” he said, saying that the subtext of every Obama remark about Mrs. Clinton is that she is status quo and old hat. “And it is not reported that way. When she draws a reasonable contrast, the press often reports it much more negatively.” Not that he has a problem with negative. He’s quite open about the fact that he wants his candidate to do more of it.
“She is going to be drawing more contrast now and she will continue to draw contrasts,” said Mr. Penn, adding that “in New Hampshire she drew sharp contrasts at the debate and had the personal moment. She did both things.”
That Mr. Penn should be the voice in the campaign loudly advocating a bruising, winning-is-everything strategy isn’t surprising. It’s a role he has played from the very beginning, according to both pro-Penn and anti-Penn sources within the campaign.
Mr. Penn argued all along that Mrs. Clinton’s main selling point was her readiness to be president. He largely rejected the notion, advocated by communications director Howard Wolfson and chief media consultant Mandy Grunwald, among others, that Mrs. Clinton needed to reveal more of her personal side.
He wanted to hit Mr. Obama early. Long an advocate of hardball campaigning, he thought it best to dispatch with Mr. Obama while the third-year senator from Illinois was still a vulnerable upstart.
Some of his colleagues thought this was a simplistic view.
“He too often thought an oppo-hit was going to take the guy down,” said a campaign source. “What we really needed was a coherent negative frame on Barack Obama, and we don’t have that.”
Another source in the campaign added that the press operation, led by Mr. Wolfson, had pushed back because Mr. Penn wanted to go negative in ways that the communications people felt were counterproductive.
“He had no tactical sense of what the market would bear,” said the campaign source, pointing in particular to Mr. Penn’s early criticism of Mr. Obama’s consistency in opposing the Iraq war, which, the source said, had the effect of putting the Clinton campaign on the defensive for weeks.
Much of the criticism of Mr. Penn since Mr. Obama’s initial primary victory in Iowa has centered on the philosophy articulated in his book Microtrends, a Tipping Point-style collection of essays about tiny-but-influential demographics th
at he thinks could change society.
He reserves a special disdain for a group he identifies as the “impressionable elites”: people who can afford to pick candidates based on fuzzy feelings rather than on the impact the candidates’ policies will have on their lives. At a recent discussion of the book at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, during which Mr. Penn said, “The theory of the book is that the era of big trends is over,” one audience member asked if Mr. Obama was not a “macrotrend.” (Barack Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, had made a similar gibe earlier this year.)
As the campaign wore on, Mr. Penn’s frustrations grew. In title, he was chief strategist, and he ostensibly had final sign-off on everything message-related that came out of the campaign. But he felt his authority had gradually been diluted by a variety of advisers all eager to push their own message. No one reported to him directly at headquarters, and many decisions also had to go through Ms. Solis Doyle, who had a close relationship with Mr. Wolfson, whom she consulted often.
Since Super Tuesday, the cast of characters has grown. Ms. Solis Doyle is out, and Maggie Williams, Mrs. Clinton’s former chief of staff, is in. And there has been yet more layering with the addition of political adviser Doug Sosnick and ad specialist Roy Spence.
Still, one of the campaign sources suggested, if Mr. Penn lost the argument over strategy, he has only himself to blame.
“When you are in command—command,” said the source. “What the most successful leaders on a campaign do is—when they know that they have a winning idea—they tuck it under their arm like a football and shepherd it from the line of scrimmage to the goal line. And that doesn’t always happen. If [former Bill Clinton aides] Podesta or Lockhart or Carville have a good idea, they don’t let it get knocked off course because it doesn’t poll well among other staff.”
Mr. Penn’s public position has not been strengthened by the revelation, in the most recent campaign filing with the Federal Election Commission, that Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, the firm that includes Mr. Penn and his team, received $3.8 million in fees in January (and more than $10 million total) from the cash-strapped Clinton campaign.
He says that those figures are misleading, too.
“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and mis-reporting on this,” said Mr. Penn. “This has been overwhelmingly for voter contact and direct mail, and all of it goes to companies, not to me personally, and I do not own the companies, and they are part of a Fortune 500 company. Large teams of people are involved.”