Democratic White House hopeful Hillary Clinton’s pollster and senior strategist has left her campaign after it was disclosed he met representatives of the Colombian government to help promote a free trade agreement his boss opposes.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Mr Penn, who serves as chief executive of public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, met Colombian officials on March 31 to help craft strategy to move the Colombian Free Trade agreement through the US Congress.
He later issued a statement apologising for the meeting, calling it an “error in judgment”.
“After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton Campaign,” campaign manager Maggie Williams said in a statement late last night.
“Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates Inc will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign.”
Communications director Howard Wolfson and pollster Geoff Garin would devise strategy for the campaign going forward, Williams said.
“Senator Clinton was disappointed that meetings with Colombians had occurred. She is a strong opponent of the trade deal,” said a Clinton campaign official.
“Over the course of the weekend he recognised he needed to step aside as chief strategist.”
Mr Penn stepped aside at the start of a key week that was likely to see the US presidential campaign veer sharply back to the Iraq war with the Congressional testimony of commanding General David Petraeus.
While the war has been pushed into the campaign background by the slumping American economy, Gen Petraeus’s much-anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill tomorrow will place him in the Senate chambers of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.
Presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, and Clinton sit on the Armed Services panel. Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Barack Obama, is a member of the Foreign Relations committee.
But yesterday, the candidates and party insiders were still focused on the broader campaign.
McCain told Fox News he would try to expand the Republicans’ appeal beyond its natural conservative base and felt he could convince voters in traditionally “blue” or Democratic-leaning, US states to vote for him.
“I’m not sure that the old red state, blue state scenario that prevailed for the last several elections works. I think most of these states that we have either red or blue are going to be up for grabs,” the Arizona senator told the conservative cable television network in an interview.
Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, meanwhile, said he did not think the tussle in his party over seating delegates from Michigan and Florida would be settled until after the last primaries on June 3.
Both states were stripped of their delegates to the party’s national nominating convention by the Democratic National Committee after party leaders in both states moved their primaries up to January, breaking party rules.
In an interview on ABC television’s This Week, Mr Dean said: “I agree,” when asked whether a solution would have to wait until after the last Democratic contests in South Dakota and Montana.