Can Clinton survive latest campaign setbacks?

Hillary Clinton’s uphill quest to beat Barack Obama to the Democratic presidential nomination was reeling Monday after her top aide Mark Penn quit over a firestorm sparked by his lobbying ties to Colombia.

The gruff political strategist had been blamed by some other Clinton insiders for her failure to quash Obama’s challenge, and a message which cast her as a voice of experience, allowing her rival to claim the mantle of change.

Penn quit after admitting he erred by meeting, in his capacity as a Washington lobbyist, with Colombian diplomats who backed a trade deal with the United States that Clinton opposes.

The Obama camp hit out at Clinton, arguing she had duped Democratic primary voters in Ohio last month, by hammering free trade pacts on the campaign trail, while her top aide was lobbying on behalf of the Colombia deal.

“I think there are issues associated with this. I’m not … you can use the word ‘hypocrisy’ but there are certainly questions that arise from this,” said top Obama strategist David Axelrod on MSNBC.

Penn is a top executive in US public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, who has his own consulting firm, and is a Clinton family loyalist who helped plot the former first lady’s triumphant 2000 New York Senate campaign.

His thick contacts book was one of the factors that prompted Obama to claim Clinton’s White House bid was fueled by a bankrupt Washington political system that had failed the American people.

Penn’s depature was announced late Sunday in a statement by Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams.

“After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign,” Williams said.

Williams herself only took over in February, replacing Patti Solis Doyle as campaign manager after an internal tumult in the face of pressure from repeated victories by Obama.

Aides said Penn’s consulting company would carry on providing polling to Clinton’s campaign, as she struggles to catch up with the Illinois senator in the party’s intense White House race ahead of the November general elections.

It was revealed last week that Burson-Marsteller was hired by Bogota to promote a free trade pact between Colombia and the United States — a treaty which Clinton has opposed.

Penn said last week he had made “an error in judgment” in meeting with the Colombian ambassador to the United States, Carolina Barco, on March 31, and said he would not make the same mistake again.

Colombia retaliated by firing Burson-Marsteller, saying in a statement that it “considers this a lack of respect to Colombians, and finds this response unacceptable.”

Burson-Marsteller’s work for Colombia raised conflict-of-interest questions for Clinton’s campaign, as she had feverishly worked to court working-class votes in states which believe free trade has hammered their manufacturing base.

In addition, when details of the Penn-Colombia meeting became public, some labor unions angrily called on Clinton to fire Penn.

Clinton triumphed in the Ohio primaries last month, in a victory credited with reviving her White House campaign, which polls suggested was based on backing from white, blue-collar voters attracted by her populist economic message.

She profited in Ohio by casting doubt on Obama’s opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, after a meeting between an aide to the Illinois senator and Canadian diplomats came to light.

The alleged iniquities of free trade have become campaign fodder as Obama and Clinton battle it out on the way to the Pennsylvania primary on April 22.

Penn’s departure had been rumored as early as January, when Clinton lost the leadoff nominating contest in Iowa to Obama, in what has evolved into a furious confrontation for the nomination.

But Clinton’s win in New Hampshire a few days later staved off a shakeup and left internal rivalries simmering through a campaign that has struggled to respond to Obama through a string of subsequent contests.

Penn came to prominence during former president Bill Clinton’s triumphant re-election effort in 1996 and he also advised the former first lady when she captured a Senate seat in 2000.