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Hillary Shouldn't Be Penn-ed In

01/04/2008 04:36 pm 16:36:16 | Updated May 25, 2011

The good news for Hillary Clinton coming off her third-place finish in Iowa is that Senator Joe Biden dropped out. It's not that Biden posed a threat, it's that his staff is now available, and he had the best woman Democratic pollster and strategist in America on his team: Celinda Lake.

Why Lake wasn't on the Clinton team from the beginning is a mystery only Mark Penn can answer. He had been polling and messaging for Bill and Hillary going back to Bill's second term, and he's chief strategist for Hillary this year. Failing to get Lake on Hillary's team is just a symptom of the larger problem. Penn thinks he's Hillary's Lone Ranger, blocking out other advisers and dissent from his "she shall be annointed" strategy that has now imploded in Iowa.

Unlike his counterpart in Senator Barack Obama's campaign, David Axelrod, Penn managed to make the story all about him at a crucial point in the Iowa battle. In a three-way on the Chris Matthews show with Axelrod and Joe Trippi from Senator John Edwards' campaign, Penn managed to mention Obama's cocaine use even as he protested that the Clinton camp wasn't promoting the drug storyline. While Axelrod kept a steady focus on Obama as the embodiment of change, Penn flailed trying to respond to various campaign missteps all related to a lack of disciplined message focus.

Axelrod put an early, laser-like focus on independents and young people, but Penn had a failure of imagination that put a premium on conventional wisdom. And he's already at it again. Penn asked reporters on the campaign plane heading to New Hampshire, "Does everyone know everything they need to know about Barack Obama?'' It was hard to miss the veiled threat, but the real question is "Does Hillary realize how undisciplined and out of touch Penn really is?"

If Hillary won't get rid of Penn, she needs to tell him to broaden the team. Adding Celinda Lake would be a good start. Besides her work for the national party, Lake's helped elect a few women Hillary knows like Senators Barbara Mikulski (MD); Blanche Lincoln (AR); and Mary Landrieu (LA); along with Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano; Patricia Madrid, the first Hispanic woman Attorney General in New Mexico; and Carol Moseley-Braun, the first African-American woman to be elected to the United States Senate. And let's not forget Lake's work for the first woman Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, or her book on what women really want.

Lake is sure to give Hillary a different perspective than Penn's. Lake is already offering up some free advice, suggesting that Hillary's gender-based appeal may have backfired among young women voters. Lake surely has some ideas on what to do about that, but to be of any help to Hillary she'll have to get past Penn and in the front door.