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Hillary Clinton's top strategist quits

Hillary Clinton's chief political strategist, Mark Penn, stepped aside on Sunday after news that he lobbied for a free trade treaty with Colombia that Clinton opposes.
Reuters | By David Wiessler, Washington
UPDATED ON APR 07, 2008 11:59 AM IST

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's chief political strategist, Mark Penn, stepped aside on Sunday after news that he lobbied for a free trade treaty with Colombia that Clinton opposes.

A meeting between Penn and Colombia's U.S. ambassador over the trade deal posed political problems for the campaign of the New York senator, who is vying with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to become the Democratic nominee in the November election.

"After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign," the campaign manager, Maggie Williams, said in a statement.

Anxiety about free trade is widespread among the working-class voters Clinton and Obama are courting and both candidates oppose the deal with Colombia.

Penn apologized for the March 31 meeting with the Colombian envoy, which he said was held in his separate role as CEO of Burson-Marsteller Worldwide, a lobbying firm hired by Colombia to promote a U.S. trade deal with the South American country.

John McCain, who has already won enough votes to secure the Republican nomination, took a break from campaigning but outlined plans to pursue voters often ignored by his party, which had focused on getting conservatives to the polls.

"We need to go all over America ... (and) compete hard in every section of the country," McCain said on "Fox News Sunday" in an interview taped on Friday.

Although he still has not won over many conservatives, McCain made clear he planned a broader campaign than those run by President George W. Bush when he faces either Obama or Clinton as the Democratic candidate in the November election.

The Arizona senator said he would go after votes of blacks and Hispanics, two traditionally strong Democratic blocs, as well as independents and young voters who have been attracted to the Democratic campaigns this year.

Red and Blue

"I'm not sure that the old red state, blue state scenario that prevailed for the last several elections works," McCain said, referring to the way television networks depict Republican states as red and Democratic states as blue.

"I think most of these states that we have either red or blue are going to be up for grabs."

Before Democrats can start concentrating on the November election they must pick a nominee. Clinton and Obama have two more months of nomination contests to go.

The next battleground is in Pennsylvania on April 22 but this weekend they were in Montana, a large, sparsely-populated state that rarely gets any political notice.

In a race where every delegate to the party convention that picks the nominee is fought over, Montana's contest on the last primary day of the year, June 3, has taken on unexpected importance. In recent elections, the party's nominee has been chosen by states holding early contests.

"I, for one, am pretty pleased that Montana is going to have the last say in who we're going to nominate for the presidency of the United States," Clinton said during a campaign stop in Missoula, Montana.

All three candidates return to the U.S. Senate this week where the Iraq war will be center stage when Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander on the ground, testifies before Congress.

Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, is leading the race for the 2,024 delegates for the nomination but will not be able to reach that figure when all the primaries are over and in fact trails in polls in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton supporter, predicted on NBC's "Meet the Press" that she would win by five to 10 percentage points. The state's Democratic senator, Robert Casey, an Obama backer, agreed "It's going to be tough."

Some Democrats worry a prolonged fight will split the party into two camps, alienate voters and strengthen McCain.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Ellen Wulfhorst)

(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online here)

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