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Clinton aides hint that now things'll get nasty

January 4, 2008 |  3:38 am

While you were sleeping, the chartered jet of the third-place finisher in the Iowa Democratic caucus winged its way from Des Moines to Manchester, N.H. And it sounds like some decisions were made on that plane that may alter the course of that party's presidential race.

At her concession speech in Des Moines on Thursday night, Hillary Clinton was all gracious and determined and smiling. But hours later on that flight someone named Mark Penn, who happens to be her chief political strategist, ominously told a gaggle of reporters, including The Times' Peter Nicholas, that the campaign's focus needs to shift now onto, you might have guessed, someone named Barack Obama.

The Illinois senator happens to be the first-place finisher in those same caucuses and now Clinton, once the inevitable Democratic nominee, is playing catch-up. Things could get nasty with some pretty sharp media contrasts made in coming days, it would seem. "This has been very much a referendum on her,'' said Penn. "And people will take a harder look at the choice and the kind of president who will be needed in these times.''

Penn hinted that the Clinton campaign may be poised to mount a more aggressive campaign in New Hampshire than in Iowa. "Time and again in the Democratic primaries," he said, ...

... "you've seen people latch onto the new, seemingly fresh candidate only to then take a sobering look at the choice they have when it comes down to the end of it. I think you're going to see that again.''

He claimed that Obama's record is comparatively unexplored and he suggested the news media should ask itself about taking a closer look at Obama's history. "Does everyone know everything they need to know about Barack Obama?'' Penn asked. "That's a decision you're going to have to make. I think at this point his record is not very well-known. And she is really well-known. She's fully vetted, fully tested. And I don't think that process has occurred with Barack Obama.''

For weeks now Clinton aides have been threatening on and off the record to use some bad stuff against their chief opponent. First, two of them told conservative columnist Robert Novak that the Clintons had very damaging information on Obama, but they weren't going to use it. Then Billy Shaheen, her New Hampshire co-chair, said that though no Democrat would use Obama's admitted youthful drug use against him, boy, would the Republicans have a field day with that later this year.

Early this morning, Penn told Nicholas that he didn't believe Obama was positioned to win in New Hamsphire, which votes Tuesday. "The only thing Obama has going for him in New Hampshire," Penn added, "is some sense of momentum. Let's see whether or not that sustains itself ... when people really focus in on the choice of picking a president.''

Some adjustments need to be made in the Clinton strategy, Penn admitted. Clinton's strongest appeal in Iowa, he said, was with older voters. Now, she must reach across generational lines. "I think her appeal as we move forward can be broader than it was [in Iowa],'' Penn said. "And I think that will happen.''

The architect of the Clinton campaign claimed that she is still positioned to win the nomination and he sought, as every political strategist would at a time like this, to play down the Iowa setback. "This is a bump in the road," he said. "No question about that. But we're in a very, very strong position to move forward and tackle the challenges that this presents.''

Kinda makes you remember that long internal memo that someone named Mike Henry wrote to Clinton last spring. At the time he was her deputy campaign manager. And he wrote: “My recommendation is to pull completely out of Iowa and spend the money and Senator Clinton’s time on other states. If she walks away from Iowa, she will devalue Iowa — our consistently weakest state.”

At the time the campaign disavowed that leaked document.

But that was last spring. And this is now.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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