Tug of war among staffers is a drag on Clinton candidacy

Times Staff Writer

As they mapped out a campaign schedule for Bill Clinton, top aides to Hillary Rodham Clinton kept his time short in South Carolina. They were probably going to lose the state, they figured, and they wanted their most powerful surrogate to move on to Georgia, Alabama and other Southern states.

But the former president shelved the plan, according to campaign aides. Day after day he stayed in South Carolina, getting into angry confrontations with the press and others. In the end, Hillary Clinton lost the Jan. 26 vote there by a 2-to-1 margin and saw her standing with African Americans nationwide become strained.

Hillary Clinton may be one of the most disciplined figures in national politics, but she has presided over a campaign operation riven by feuding, rival fiefdoms and second-guessing of top staff members.

Those tensions partly explain why Clinton today stands where, just a few months ago, few expected she’d be: struggling to catch up to Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. If she loses either of the crucial contests Tuesday in Texas and Ohio, Clinton may face calls from senior party officials to end her campaign.


Some polls show her leading in Ohio but tied in Texas; the race in both states is considered close.

Already, some in Clinton’s senior staff are pointing fingers over what went wrong, with some of the blame aimed at Clinton herself. As the race unfolded, neither Clinton nor anyone else resolved the internal power struggles that played out with destructive effect and continue to this day.

Chief strategist and pollster Mark Penn clashed with senior advisor Harold Ickes, former deputy campaign manager Mike Henry and others. Field organizers battled with Clinton’s headquarters in northern Virginia. Campaign themes were rolled out and discarded, reflecting tensions among a staff bitterly divided over what Clinton’s basic message should be.

The dispute over Bill Clinton’s schedule shows how easily plans can unravel. Some campaign staffers didn’t expect to win South Carolina overall, but “our strategy was to go after specific districts in South Carolina” to add to the delegate total while freeing Bill Clinton to spend time in other Southern states, said a Clinton campaign aide.

But Bill Clinton said “ ‘I need to be in South Carolina,’ ” the aide said. “It was a one-man mission out there.”

Obama, who leads Clinton in delegates, would pose problems for any candidate. But aides to Clinton said the dysfunction within her campaign team made its task that much tougher.

Joe Trippi, a senior advisor to John Edwards’ now-dropped Democratic campaign, said: “At some point the candidate has to step in and bust heads and say ‘Enough!’

“If there’s fighting internally, the candidate has to step up and make it clear what direction she wants to go and stop this stuff dead in its tracks. Otherwise there’s going to be a struggle for power and control right until the end. It’s crippling.”

Last month, after a series of defeats, Hillary Clinton chose a new campaign manager, replacing Patti Solis Doyle. But she left in place many senior people, including Penn and Ickes, who have been involved in incessant turf wars.

As the campaign faces a make-or-break moment, some high-level officials are trying to play down their role in the campaign. Penn said in an e-mail over the weekend that he had “no direct authority in the campaign,” describing himself as merely “an outside message advisor with no campaign staff reporting to me.”

“I have had no say or involvement in four key areas -- the financial budget and resource allocation, political or organizational sides. Those were the responsibility of Patti Solis Doyle, Harold Ickes and Mike Henry, and they met separately on all matters relating to those areas.”

Howard Wolfson, the campaign’s communications chief, answered that it was Penn who had top responsibility for both its strategy and message. Another aide said Penn spoke to Clinton routinely about the campaign’s message and ran daily meetings on the topic.

One running debate within Clinton’s campaign was whether her defeats -- she has lost 11 straight contests -- were due to organizational lapses or a faulty message.

Some aides say organizational problems were the most significant, as Obama outworked Clinton in many states and sent in organizers earlier.

That problem may go back to well before the lead-off contest, in Iowa. In June, Clinton’s Iowa staff requested 150 organizers; headquarters approved a budget for 90.

By September, Iowa staff were sending out warnings about Obama’s strength. “We are being outnumbered on the ground on a daily basis by his campaign, and it is beginning to show results,” said a memo to top campaign officials on Sept. 26, about three months before the state’s caucuses.

Clinton’s “call time into Iowa is routinely cut. . . . Not only does Obama spend more time in Iowa . . . but he spends more time making political phone calls into Iowa as well,” the memo said. “His persistence and one-on-one approach has earned Obama the support of several key activists who are decision-makers in their counties.”

The memo asked for 100 more field organizers “immediately.”

Later, Clinton did bring more organizers to Iowa. She finished third, behind Obama and Edwards.

The campaign also had trouble settling on a way to confront Obama. Top aides could not agree on whether, or how, to attack him.

“Why aren’t we attacking him?” Bill Clinton asked at a high-level staff meeting Dec. 1 at the Clintons’ Washington home, according to people familiar with events. With aides sitting around the dining room table, Bill Clinton said it was time to get more aggressive with Obama.

The following day, in Iowa, Hillary Clinton called a news conference to execute the strategy of questioning Obama’s character. “Now the fun part starts,” she said.

But the attacks were sporadic. Aides warned that Iowans dislike personal attacks, so Clinton quickly pulled back. Sustained criticism of Obama didn’t come until later in the campaign season.

Another unresolved question went to the core of Clinton’s identity. Penn wanted to emphasize her “strength and experience” and her command of issues -- an approach the campaign adopted.

But others worried that in emphasizing her steely resolve, the campaign was ignoring the reality that many voters disliked Clinton. They wanted to humanize her.

The campaign produced a 60-second television ad before the Iowa caucuses that attempted to do so. In it, Clinton told the story of her mother leaving Chicago on a train at age 8, accompanied only by her 3-year-old sister, to live with grandparents in Los Angeles. It was a poignant story that campaign aides hoped would also highlight Clinton’s interest in children’s issues.

But Penn tested the advertisement with voters. He reported back that it did not play well in Iowa, and it never aired -- leaving some aides grumbling that an opportunity had been missed.

The dispute flared anew after Clinton’s defeat in South Carolina. At a meeting in the Arlington, Va., headquarters, Penn and others gave a PowerPoint presentation on what was billed as a new message: Clinton would be championing “Solutions for America.”

Henry, then the deputy campaign manager, objected, according to people at the meeting. He said it sounded like a repackaging of the old message that Clinton was a strong leader rather than a warm person. Indeed, a top item in the PowerPoint was “strength and experience” -- a theme Clinton had been stressing for months.

Henry asked: “Is this what we’re doing, or is it up for discussion?”

Penn said Clinton had already approved the new message.

At that point, Henry asked if the campaign had learned anything from its defeats. It should be clear, he said, that voters want to see a more human side of her.

“This is not bringing out the humanity in her,” Henry said, according to people present.

Penn countered that the reason for many of her defeats, particularly in smaller states, had been a lack of organization, not the message -- a swipe at Henry and others in field work.

In the end, Clinton backed Penn. Henry left the campaign. And Clinton has been casting herself as someone in the “solutions business” -- a message she repeats as she makes a stand in Ohio and Texas.

The campaign dubbed her final weekend appearances in Texas and Ohio “Solutions for America” rallies.

“ ‘Solutions for America,’ ” one campaign aide said. “It sounds like something you’d buy at the pharmacy.”