THIS CLINTON MACHINE IS A TIGHTER SHIP

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent much of the last month behind closed doors, putting the final touches on a presidential campaign-in-waiting.

Her hectic schedule has been crammed with private lunches and phone conversations with elected officials and political operatives. She has sounded out Democratic Party officials from New York to Des Moines about her chances and hired a cadre of new campaign aides.

And she has made time for television interviews, re-releases of her books and delicately timed appearances with her high-wattage husband.

It is all part of a political organization that has been under construction since the turbulent Clinton White House years and was bolstered by two successful Senate campaigns. Awaiting only her go-ahead -- with a decision expected in January -- the machine that Hillary built has the heft and advance billing of an election-year juggernaut.

It is a high-stakes fusion of her political world and her husband's, two camps with markedly different styles and, at times, competing agendas and egos. The test, should she decide to run, will be getting the two cultures to work together.

"Her organization is much different than the old Clinton organization," said New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on President Clinton's 1996 reelection effort. "She has a whole loyal national network of her own. They're all hard, tough people. The trick she'll have is to find a way to blend them in and keep them together."

Bill Clinton ran a loose and leaky ship during his two White House terms, and many in his old brain trust who are expected to return to the fold for a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign now have careers to tend and outside interests to promote.

By contrast, "Hillaryland" is a disciplined structure of her own design, a tight-knit realm populated by discreet, fiercely devoted aides who have been with the former first lady since her East Wing days, along with newer additions who serve on her Senate staff. Some wonder if her circle is too buffered.

"The danger she faces," one longtime Clinton intimate said, "is the problem of insularity. You saw that at times in the Clinton White House. She tends to filter a lot through her most trusted people. That's an advantage when things are going well. But you can get closed off when things are falling apart."

Her machine would nonetheless be tested early. Recent polls in New Hampshire and Iowa show Clinton would have stiff competition from two potential Democratic rivals, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

"The challenge she'll have in the primaries is building something that's lean and supple, an operation that can turn on a dime," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey D. Garin.

Clinton's closest aide is, of course, her husband -- "the best strategist of his generation," Sheinkopf says. But their dynamic would make for a unique campaign with its own risks and opportunities.

The former president will have to restrain the urge to grab the spotlight. "It's her campaign, not his," Sheinkopf said.

During recent appearances together, intimates say, the former president has had to work to rein in his impulse to play to the crowd. "You can see him champing at the bit," one said.

Hillary Clinton has warmed on the stump, but party leaders still worry that Bill Clinton's mastery of the stage muffles her presence by comparison. And a recent spate of news accounts of the Clintons' marriage and reversed political roles have dredged up unwelcome memories of the Monica S. Lewinsky affair and the impeachment crisis.

In her Senate run this year, the Clintons often deployed separately across New York, operating like complementary vaudeville troupers. While the senator concentrated on working-class communities upstate, pushing economic hardship issues to win over independents and suburban Republicans, the former president secured the Democratic base in New York, hobnobbing with East Side donors and barnstorming in Harlem and elsewhere in Manhattan. She easily won reelection, taking 67% of the vote.

Most Clinton loyalists insist the couple would be a magnetic duo. "He's the best campaign weapon any Democrat can have -- and that includes his wife, who's superb in her own right," said John Catsimatidis, an influential New York supermarket chain owner who is a longtime Clinton donor.

After her husband, the senator depends most on her core staff. These aides dubbed their close-knit enclave Hillaryland after whimsical signs that sprouted inside the Little Rock transition office in 1992 to identify the camps working for Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and their spouses (the others were Clintonville, Goreville and Tipper Town). The self-mocking tag remained after the first lady's protectors circled the wagons during Whitewater, Travelgate and the impeachment.

Patti Solis Doyle, a Hillaryland stalwart who was Hillary Clinton's first hire as scheduler in 1992, is expected to be tapped as campaign manager. Doyle, 41, had key roles in both Senate campaigns, and most recently headed up Hillpac, the well-oiled fundraising arm that drummed up more than $50 million in donations for 2006.

Doyle has long been considered the senator's most reliable aide and confidant. She is among the few, one Hillarylander said, "who can talk tough to Hillary and get away with it." A selfless wunderkind from Chicago's hard-boiled political terrain who shuns publicity, Doyle won Clinton's lasting admiration by helping rejuvenate her flagging first election effort in 2000.

"Patti's there because she has the best working knowledge of Mrs. Clinton's history, her needs and her desires," said G. Neel Lattimore, a Children's Defense Fund communications strategist who was the first lady's press secretary. "She can get people in a room who are warring with each other to calm down and make the tough decisions."

Those skills might prove critical in blunting the sharp elbows sometimes thrown by the senator's troika of senior political strategists. Mark J. Penn, Mandy Grunwald and Harold M. Ickes all had integral stints during the Clinton administration and have since worked at close quarters in both of Hillary Clinton's Senate triumphs.

Directing overall strategy would fall to Penn, the centrist pollster who was a key player in Bill Clinton' 1996 reelection and now works as chief executive of the Burson-Marsteller public relations firm. Advertising decisions would be handled by Grunwald, who had a pivotal role shaping ads in Bill Clinton's first presidential run. Ickes, the acerbic son of Franklin Roosevelt's Interior secretary and a Clinton White House deputy chief of staff, would probably oversee the campaign's budget and relations with party officials and affiliated "527" committees, groups that can spend money on behalf of candidates or issues but cannot give it to their campaigns. Ickes also would delve into voter profiling, an interest he developed while running Catalist, a private database targeting firm.

Communications strategy in Clinton's Senate campaigns has been overseen by Howard Wolfson, a New York public relations veteran who is already handling campaign-related media for Clinton.

During Hillary Clinton's campaigns, these four aides have dominated a daily 7:30 a.m. conference call in which her political strategy was hammered out and her daily message crafted. "It's not for the faint of heart," one participant said. "Some of these guys hate each other's guts. But the principal finds it useful as long as it doesn't get too vicious."

There are dangers to blood-letting. Chaos within the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry toppled campaign managers and left internal scars.

"That won't happen with Patti because Hillary depends on her too much," one former trusted campaign aide said. "If there are casualties, they'd be lower down the food chain."

A slew of other Clinton familiars are expected to help out. High-profile Democratic consultant James Carville, who lauded the "power of Hillary" in a widely circulated article he and Penn wrote earlier this year, is expected to provide strategic advice. Howard G. Paster, who was Bill Clinton's chief congressional lobbyist and works with Penn as chairman of Burson-Marsteller's executive board, is said to be primed for a senior advisory role. Former Democratic National Committee chief and Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe is slated to line up top donors along with a new hire, campaign finance director Jonathan Mantz, a Democratic Party financial expert.

Hillary Clinton's heavy spending in the 2006 campaign -- too heavy, some said -- left her with a less-than-bountiful $14 million in the bank. But Ann Lewis, communications director for Hillpac, noted that more than $11 million of the $37 million outlay was used to build a massive national database -- essential to mining millions more in small donations and profiling likely volunteers.

"The money we spent was well worth it," Lewis said.

Catsimatidis said he and other big donors on both coasts were already being approached to replenish the coffers. In New York, the effort revolves around venture capitalist Alan J. Patricof, Sen. Clinton's campaign chair and a longtime fundraiser for the couple. In California, key money players will probably be Susie Tompkins Buell, co-founder of the Esprit clothing company, billionaire Ron Burkle and entertainment chief Haim Saban, who recently hosted the Clintons at an annual Mideast policy forum he sponsors in Washington.

"She can raise whatever she needs," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

For policy advice, Clinton would turn to John Podesta, who was her husband's White House chief of staff and now heads the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank with strong connections to his former employers. "I talk to her from time to time on policy and issues," Podesta said. "There's no formal structure at this point."

Despite the center's "nonaligned" status, Sen. Clinton played a "formative" role in discussions that led to its creation, Podesta acknowledged recently.

New hires from Democratic party ranks also have been brought in, depriving rivals of some of the party's top talent. Phil Singer, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, would run Clinton's war room. Blogging whiz and former Kerry Internet aide Peter Daou would tackle Web-based opposition research. Karen Hicks, who was Howard Dean's New Hampshire primary field director, is set to run Clinton's early primaries. Burns Strider, who spearheaded religious outreach for the House Democratic caucus, has been hired to tap into the evangelical Christian movement.

Along with the professionals, Clinton aides expect a groundswell of women -- political operatives, donors, volunteers -- would flock to Hillary Clinton because she is a female presidential candidate.

"She wants people who work for her to want to be there out of a sense of mission, not just simply as professionals," said Lorraine Voles, Clinton's Senate communications director.

The mission, Voles said, "would be electing the first woman president. It's not the only thing that brings people in the door, but it's what would be on everyone's minds over the long run."

"That is," Voles added, "assuming she runs."

steve.braun@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

On her team

Hillary Rodham Clinton's political organization, begun in the Bill Clinton White House, has been bolstered during her two successful Senate campaigns.

If she runs for president, these are some of the people who are likely to help her in that quest.

The inner circle

Old-line Bill Clinton players

TERRY McAULIFFE

"First friend" of the Clintons; key fundraiser and party conduit

JOHN PODESTA

Chief executive at Center for American Progress and former White House chief of staff

JAMES CARVILLE

Democratic campaign consultant; promoted Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential candidacy

HOWARD G. PASTER

Chairman of Burson-Marsteller; former chief White House lobbyist

Hillaryland

The senator's core staff, who gave the name to their close-knit enclave during the 1992 transition period

MARGARET "MAGGIE" WILLIAMS

Former East Wing aide; post-White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton

NEERA TANDEN

Longtime advisor to Hillary Clinton; senior vice president of Center for American Progress

TAMERA LUZZATTO

Senate chief of staff

LORRAINE VOLES

Senate communications director

Democratic Party veterans

ANN LEWIS

Former Democratic National Committee political

director; now communications chief at Hillpac

PHIL SINGER

Former Democratic Senate spokesman; would head "rapid response"

JONATHAN MANTZ

Former Democratic finance official; would be

national finance director

KAREN HICKS

Former Howard Dean presidential campaign aide; would head primary organizing

PETER DAOU

Internet and blogging specialist; worked on John F. Kerry presidential campaign

Source: Times reporting

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