Another Clinton staffer said that the fundamental message of the campaign, that Mrs. Clinton was a champion of the middle class offering concrete solutions, compared to Barack Obama’s higher-falutin, less specific promises, would remain the same. What would change, the staffer said, would be the implementation of “different ways to illustrate the message—different ways to humanize the message.”
The staffer said that of the multiple economic round tables in which Mrs. Clinton had participated in Pennsylvania in recent weeks, the ones in which she was surrounded by economics professors and other experts were arranged by Mr. Penn to show off her experience and fluency with complicated policy issues. Mr. Wolfson and company had pushed for the ones in which she shared the table with “regular people” talking about their economic woes.
For his part, Mr. Penn—who declined to comment for this article—has tried to maintain an air of normalcy.
According to a Huffington Post reporter who listened in on a Burson-Marsteller conference call on April 7, Mr. Penn assured his employees that “the situation has played itself out.” (It’s too soon to tell whether his position as Burson-Marsteller’s CEO has been adversely affected by the recent negative publicity, or from the Colombian government’s subsequent decision to terminate its contract with the firm.)
If anything, it has been Mrs. Clinton who has had the harder time explaining Mr. Penn’s change in station.
On April 8, during a sweep through the morning shows, Mrs. Clinton received softballs and admiration from MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough before fielding one question about whether Mr. Penn’s demotion sufficiently severed his ties to the campaign. “We did take appropriate action on behalf of the campaign,” Mrs. Clinton said.
A few minutes later, she appeare
d in the same seat and in front of the same vase of pink flowers on CNN, where she received a tougher round of questions about Mr. Penn’s portfolio. Again she started by saying, “We took appropriate action in the campaign,” and acknowledged having received calls from “a number of my friends,” meaning labor leaders. “But I had already determined what action we were going to take and we took it,” she said.
She complained that she was being harshly treated by the media, and contrasted her treatment of Mr. Penn with the Obama campaign’s treatment of Austan Goolsbee, who retained his post of economic adviser after it was reported that he privately assured Canadian officials that Mr. Obama, contrary to his public stance, favored free trade.
A little bit after 8 a.m., Mrs. Clinton appeared in front of a large sign that said “Labor 2008” and addressed a large crowd of union members at a Communications Workers of America conference in a Washington Hyatt, at which both Democratic candidates were scheduled to speak. She spoke glowingly of the labor movement, saying its members made it possible for her to talk on the phone, mail, drive and fly around and stay in hotels on the trail.
She then addressed the matter that got Mr. Penn into trouble directly.
“No trade deal with Colombia while violence against trade unions continues,” she said, to shouts of approval and applause. She added, “As I have said for months, I oppose the deal, I have spoken out against the deal and I will vote against the deal, and I will do everything I can to urge the congress to reject the Colombian trade agreement.”
A few moments later she used a line widely attributed to Mr. Penn.
“Sometimes when the phone rings at 3 a.m. in the White House, it is an economic crisis,” she said.
In the few minutes after she finished speaking and before Mr. Obama took the stage and emphasized his own opposition to the Colombian trade agreement, Greg Badini, a 50-year-old union member from Flemington, N.J., who was standing in the back of the room, said that Mrs. Clinton’s decision not to completely sever ties with Mr. Penn “concerned” him.
When asked if it would factor into whom he would support, he said, “It definitely would.”
“It’s damage control,” said Michael Cullen, a 56-year-old union member from New Jersey. A Clinton supporter, he said it didn’t make sense for Mrs. Clinton to completely deny herself Mr. Penn’s services. “When you are running full-blast at the end, you are going to get a new guy to come in and change everything? Changing gears right now could be fatal.”
Fritz Clark, a 73-year-old union representative from Elmira, N.Y., who voted for Mrs. Clinton, also said the campaign was too far along now to change the strategist.
“I’m sure his influence is still going to be there,” he said.
After the union event, Mrs. Clinton traveled a few blocks to the Dirksen Senate Office Building and took a seat on the edge of a crescent of senators listening to testimony from Gen. David Petraeus about the progress of the surge in Iraq.
After Mrs. Clinton finished questioning General Petraeus in the Senate room, reporters spilled out to follow her down the hallway and stairwell. She responded to questions about goal posts moving from Iraq to Iran, and said Iraq had been given a “blank check” by the Bush administration and raised questions about the expanded “military options and commitments in southern Iraq.”
Shortly afterward, she was asked, twice, why she was keeping Mr. Penn on the campaign and whether his influence had waned. She had nothing to say, and walked out the door.