Today's Papers

Almost Fired

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsboxlead, and most of the other papers front, news that Hillary Clinton replaced her campaign’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, after the WSJ disclosed late last week that he was actively working to win approval of a trade deal that the senator opposes. Word that Penn had met with Colombian officials in his role as president of a public relations firm apparently infuriated Clinton, particularly since trade is set to play a big role in this month’s crucial Pennsylvania primary. Although the official line is that Penn resigned, everyone makes clear that word from the campaign is that he was pretty much forced out. USA Today leads with a look at how there’s been a huge increase in voter registration in six of the eight states with upcoming Democratic primaries. Not only are new voters coming in, but many who were already registered are changing their party affiliation so they can participate in the Democratic primaries.

The Los Angeles Timesand Washington Postboth lead locally. The LAT gets word that a UCLA Medical Center employee improperly looked at the electronic records of more than 30 “celebrities, politicians, and high-profile patients.” UCLA knew of the problem last May but didn’t notify any of the patients involved. The WP takes a look at how the economic downturn means Washington suburbs are suddenly no longer concerned about what was the No. 1 issue in regional politics for more than a decade: growth. Just as in other fast-growing areas across the country, local politicians now have to worry about dealing with budget shortfalls instead of debating whether to approve a new residential development.

Rather than a direct firing or ouster, Penn’s move can be more accurately described as a “demotion” since, in the words of Clinton’s campaign manager, he will “continue to provide polling and advice.” It was the second big staff shake-up in the campaign this year, and this one is particularly significant because Penn has been the subject of much controversy. Many Clinton insiders have blamed Penn for carrying out a flawed strategy that failed to quickly adapt when the former first lady’s numbers began to drop. But despite repeated calls for his ouster from several of her campaign’s staff members, Clinton stuck by her longtime adviser. “There won’t be a tear shed here, I can assure you,” a Clinton adviser tells the WSJ.

The WP points out that Penn’s decision to stay on at the public relations firm while working for Clinton always puzzled insiders, who saw it as a recipe for disaster since it could raise exactly this type of conflict-of-interest scenario that could put Clinton’s credibility on the line. The LAT notes that since Penn will still be part of the campaign, the demotion might not be enough to “mollify influential labor groups” who have been complaining for months about Penn’s extracurricular work.

The NYT fronts the latest from Iraq, where there was heavy fighting yesterday in Baghdad’s Sadr City as American and Iraqi troops tried to overpower militias who have been firing rockets and mortars into the Green Zone. But the attacks continued and killed at least two U.S. soldiers and wounded 17 in the Green Zone. A rocket attack also killed another American soldier in a military base in eastern Baghdad, and a fourth U.S. service member was killed by a roadside bomb in Diyala. The NYT notes that U.S. troops have moved into Sadr City and are “living in primitive conditions” to battle the militias “who appeared to have a well-organized system of command and control.”

Although violence in southern Iraq largely died down after cleric Muqtada Sadr called on his followers to drop their weapons, the LAT and WP both front looks at how the attack on Basra revealed deep divisions that could quickly explode into intra-Shiite warfare. “We are now locked in a battle,” an Iraqi government official tells the LAT. The WP says that members of the Mahdi Army are quick to say that the Basra offensive has changed everything and many are eager to continue fighting in order to take revenge on the government. One militia commander tells the paper that he now considers other Shiites to be “bigger enemies” than Sunnis. The LAT also points out that intra-Shiite warfare is hardly the only concern of U.S. officials, as there are also signs that al-Qaida in Iraq appears to be coming back.

The LAT points out the recent increase in violence will make it difficult for Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to “depict Iraq as moving toward stability” when they testify before Congress this week. Regardless, the WP notes the hearings are “eliciting no more than shrugs” because, unlike the last time they testified, no one expects any surprises. And besides, most probably won’t even be paying that much attention to what they say since all eyes will be set on the three presidential candidates who are taking time off from campaigning to be at the hearing. “Although the committee chairmen are loath to admit it, two relatively junior Democratic senators and one ranking Republican are likely to steal the show,” says the Post. Sen. Lindsey Graham characterizes it as “sort of a dress rehearsal for who is best prepared to be commander in chief.”

The NYT takes an interesting look at how all the hoopla surrounding the recently imposed restrictions and disclosure requirements for earmarks ignores the fact that members of Congress can still get money for their pet projects without specifically asking for it. Welcome to the world of “soft earmarks.” The difference is that instead of asking for a specific amount of money outright, lawmakers use words such as urges or recommends to point agencies toward their pet projects. Although the language may seem courteous, government officials often feel obligated to comply with the requests. “Soft earmarks, while not legally binding, frequently come with an implicit threat: If you don’t take our suggestions, we will give you a hard earmark next,” said Andrew Natsios, a former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The LAT announces today that it is officially retracting its March 17 story about rap star Tupac Shakur. The paper has removed the story “and related materials” from its Web site because the piece “relied heavily on information that the Times no longer believes to be credible.”