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Can 'American Idol' really retire Hillary Clinton's campaign debt? And why pay off Mark Penn anyway?

April 17, 2009 |  7:19 am

Friends of Hillary offer prizes to retire her campaign debt

She is not the only candidate with debt leftover from the Most Expensive Presidential Campaign ever.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani owes $2.4 million for campaign services spent on everything from from travel to telephones. Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, already facing an expensive reelection campaign next year, has paid off $250,000 but still owes about $300,000 in campaign debts. Even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose aw-shucks brand of campaigning didn't look very expensive, is, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports, still short $82,000.

But nobody racked up more campaign debt than former first lady, former New York senator and now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the heat of the primaries last May, facing the phenomenal Obama fundraising machine, she had piled up more than $22.5 million in debt, more than half owed to herself. In January, President-elect Barack Obama asked supporters to help retire the $10 million she owed others.

Last quarter she paid her pollster, Mark Penn, $3 million, but she still owes him $2.3 million. And some are questioning why she should pay the architect of her failed strategy anything at all.

Penn is the same pollster she forced out during the campaign because of his work for pro-trade clients, the very same genius behind her candidate-as-incumbent strategy blamed by some many Clintonites for her fall in a year when the last thing voters wanted was the incumbent.

Clinton, says Time magazine's Karen Tumulty, feels an obligation to retire every single penny of her campaign debt, at least the part owed to others.

So Clinton loyalist James Carville recently sent out an e-mail to the faithful, urging once last push to take this load off Hillary's back. The gambit: "Enter today to win one of three truly once in a lifetime opportunities and you will also be doing something great to help finish off Hillary's debt."

Call it the raffle-ticket approach to politics. 

For $5, win a day with former President Bill Clinton in New York, "a truly once-in-a-lifetime chance: You and a guest will spend a day with President Clinton and a weekend of fun-filled adventure in New York."

For $5, win a weekend in Washington D.C., including lunch with strategists Carville and Paul Begala, the go-to guys of the Clinton political operation.

Or, for $5, win tickets for you and a guest to watch the finale of Fox TV's "American Idol" in Los Angeles.

Making Hillary happy -- priceless.

Not all Clinton supporters are buying in.

"Not a dime for Mark Penn,"  says Jonathan Tasini on Huffington Post. His case: Penn, who has since teamed up with Bush advocate Karen Hughes in a bipartisan consulting business, is a tool of corporate interests who doesn't care about any of the issues that motivated Hillary.

Whether you like Penn or not, at $5 a pop, it will take 460,000 Clinton fans to pay off the pesky pollster.

Your vote?

 -- Johanna Neuman

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Photo Credit: Friends of Hillary

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