Pollster Geoff Garin, Communications chief Howard Wolfson to replace Mark Penn as Clinton strategist.

SHARE Pollster Geoff Garin, Communications chief Howard Wolfson to replace Mark Penn as Clinton strategist.

WASHINGTON–Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams announced Sunday that Mark Penn was cut from his role as chief strategist of the campaign, with the decision to move out one of Clinton’s most controversial aides coming after he met with Colombia’s ambassador to the U.S. to talk about promoting a bilateral trade agreement Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton opposed.

Penn has been a longtime adviser to Clinton, with his status secure in the campaign — until now — because of his strong relationship with former President Bill Clinton. The rumpled, outspoken Penn, often the voice and face of the Clinton campaign, served two functions for Clinton — as a strategist and pollster.

“His dual role(s) . . . are not complimentary,” said former Democratic National Committee Chair Don Fowler Sunday night.

(Lynn Sweet column in April 7, 2008 print Sun-Times)

“That’s a conflict, and that’s the genesis of the problem. The two roles are incompatible,” said Fowler, a Clinton backer who credited Penn with contributing to Bill Clinton’s 1996 victory

While Penn was pushed out over a meeting with a foreign government, his departure may have been overdue since he was behind the decision for Clinton not to compete heavily in every state, handing an enormous advantage to Obama.

If Clinton is defeated by Obama — and she needs overwhelming victories in the 10 contests left just to stay in play — limiting her battlegrounds will have been one of her biggest mistakes.

All along this long campaign, Penn has retained his position as chief executive of Burson-Marstellar Worldwide, a public relations and government affairs firm, and it was that role that proved to be the final straw. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported Penn’s meeting with the ambassador and revealed his firm signed a $300,000, one-year contract with the Colombian Embassy in March 2007, to help promote the trade deal, opposed by Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama.

After the story appeared, the Colombian government fired Penn’s firm. But the political fallout had already started and Williams’ options actually were quite limited. On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who is backing Clinton, was asked by host Tim Russert if he thought the Clinton campaign should “fire Mark Penn.”

Rendell was hardly supportive of Penn: “Yeah, I think you’ve got to make it very clear when you’re someone who’s a consultant, who you’re representing and who you’re not representing.”

In late February and early March, just before crucial Ohio and Texas votes, the Obama campaign took some hits after it came out that Obama top economic adviser Austan Goolsbee met with a Canadian government official in Chicago to discuss NAFTA and perhaps — nothing was ever proven — suggested that Obama’s call to revisit NAFTA was just political rhetoric.

An Obama campaign spokesman, Bill Burton, on Friday morning sent out a memo with a reminder of what Clinton said during the Goolsbee turmoil: “I would ask you to look at this story and substitute my name for Sen. Obama’s name and see what you would do with this story. Just ask yourself [what you would do] if some of my advisers had been having private meetings with foreign governments.”

Williams said Penn’s firm will continue to poll and advise the Clinton campaign. Pollster Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson, the communications chief, will handle Penn’s duties.

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