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Goodbye, Mrs. Doubtfire

It’s dramatic, yet somehow hard to be surprised by the news that Mark Penn is stepping down from his big gig in the Clinton campaign.

Even before The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Penn — Hillary Clinton’s top strategist, and a key adviser in her two US Senate campaigns — had met with Colombia’s ambassador to the US to talk about a pending trade deal, the tension was becoming apparent.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s communications director, seemed to take an awkward glee when he introduced his colleague in a conference call with reporters on Thursday, calling Penn the campaign’s "chief and senior strategist," when "chief strategist" used to do just fine.

Penn’s position became untenable after the Colombia meeting was revealed — prompting the latest in a series of questions about the conflicts of interest that faced him while he sat atop the Clinton presidential race while refusing to relinquish his job as CEO of Burson-Marsteller, the lobbying and PR firm. Chris Matthews put an especially fine point on the double act on Friday night, likening Penn to Mrs. Doubtfire.

Penn had quickly apologized for the meeting, but organized labor complained — and the Colombian government fired his firm. But most interesting will be whether his departure from the top job actually changes anything in Clinton’s campaign.

Maggie Williams, the campaign’s manager, said Penn will continue to provide "polling and advice" to the campaign.

Penn made his name by targeting small groups of swing voters. And in recent days, he’s used the same approach to argue that Clinton is more electable than Barack Obama.

In that Thursday call, Penn highlighted Clinton’s strength — in surveys and exit polls — among working and middle class voters, Catholics, women and Latinos. "In 2004, the critical swing voters turned out to be Latino voters" and security moms, Penn said. "Those key swing voters have been very much among the groups that she has been attracting strong support from."

Of course, that narrow approach is also at the heart of Clinton’s electoral map strategy, which puts all the emphasis on winning a few swing states. Now, even with Penn on the sidelines, could the Clinton campaign even contemplate veering from that course?

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