From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** Clinton's Sword Is Mightier Than Penn: As most everyone knows by now, Mark Penn is no longer the Clinton campaign's chief strategist. The reason: The Wall Street Journal story from Friday, which reported that Penn -- in his role as chief executive of PR giant Burson Marsteller -- was discussing with the Colombian government a trade agreement that Clinton opposes. As we speculated when this story first surfaced, Penn was providing his critics inside the campaign an opportunity to push him out. It looks like Penn's final protectors, the Clintons, were convinced that this episode was the last straw. In some ways, it's remarkable that Penn lasted this long in the dual roles of chief strategist and CEO of a major worldwide PR firm. Imagine the press scrutiny had Karl Rove, for instance, attempted to keep two jobs like that during the Bush campaigns. Or if James Carville had tried this during the Clinton years. It was quite remarkable what Penn was trying to do.
*** A tough couple of weeks: Penn's resignation as chief strategist -- his firm will still do polling for the campaign, apparently -- caps what has been a tough couple of weeks for the Clinton campaign. First came the Tuzla sniper stories. Next was the should-she-stay-or-should-she-go speculation. Then came the reports that Obama raised twice the amount Clinton did in March; that the Clintons made $109 million since Bill left the White House; and that an anecdote Hillary was telling on the campaign (about a pregnant woman who died after being denied health care) isn't necessarily true. The possible good news from Penn's ouster as chief strategist: Those other stories move to the backburner. There's also a new North Carolina poll -- which shows Clinton trailing Obama there by nine points (with a lot of undecideds) -- that finds Clinton scored much lower on the issue of "trustworthiness" than either Obama or McCain. Toss in the Bosnia story and now that hospital story, and it appears she's made up zero ground on this issue, which dogged her husband and her in polling for some time.
*** Petraeus returns: The presidential campaign moves from the campaign trail to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday, when Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testify to the Senate and the House, respectively. Clinton, McCain, and Obama will all be asking questions on Tuesday. Perhaps no candidate could gain more from this week's hearings than Clinton. If she can somehow look the part of chief questioner, it could bolster her presidential readiness argument. In fact, one could argue, she HAS to become the story out of these hearings. After all, there aren't many game changing opportunities left before voting resumes on April 22.
*** The delegate count: Obama's lead continues to creep higher, as he picked up another superdelegate -- DNC member and state legislator Margaret Campbell from Montana. Obama now holds an overall lead of 1,641-1,507 and trails in superdelegates, 255-225. Since Super Tuesday, per our count, Obama has picked up 55 supers while Clinton has lost a net of five. Overall, Obama has almost a 130-delegate lead over Clinton, which comes out to a 52%-48% split.
*** Busy Bill: The former president is in Puerto Rico today and, as usual these days, he has a very full schedule. As we've noted several times, the pace of Bill Clinton's schedule is amazing.
*** Heston passes: In honor of the now late Charlton Heston, you can't pry this First Read unless you do so from our cold, dead Blackberries." Heston may have done more for the gun movement than any other individual; his leadership on the issue humanized the pro-gun advocates at a time when the NRA, in particular, was under siege by gun control legislation all over the country. The NRA may never have a leader like Heston again but then again, they might not need one for some time as he put the pro-gun group on a path that helped alter the politics of guns for a generation.
*** On the trail: Clinton is down in DC; McCain gives a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters in Kansas City; and Obama is down in Chicago before heading to DC.
Countdown to Pennsylvania: 15 days
Countdown to North Carolina, Indiana: 29 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 211 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 288 days
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