WASHINGTON — Before the Iowa caucuses, senior aides to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton fell into a heated argument during a 7:30 a.m. conference call about the basic message their candidate was delivering to voters.
Mark Penn, chief strategist and pollster, liked Clinton's emphasis on her "strength and experience," and he defended the idea of her running as a quasi-incumbent best suited for the presidency. Harold Ickes and other advisors said that message was not working. A more promising strategy, they argued, would be to focus on the historic prospect of electing the first woman president.
Today, as Clinton tries to revive her campaign after losing 10 straight primary contests to Sen. Barack Obama, some insiders look back and wish that argument had produced a different outcome. Penn won the debate, say two people aware of the conversation, and Clinton went on to present herself to voters as a steely figure so familiar with the workings of government that she could lead from Day One.
The Clinton campaign now seems in peril, its precarious situation acknowledged on Wednesday even by former President Bill Clinton, who suggested that his wife could not survive a loss in either of the next two major contests, in Texas and Ohio on March 4.
"If she wins Texas and Ohio, I think she will be the nominee," the former president told an audience in Beaumont, Texas. "If you don't deliver for her, I don't think she can be."
Still, the campaign seems to be doubling its bet on the message that caused so much division among top aides before the first caucuses in Iowa.
Even as results rolled in from Wisconsin on Tuesday night, eventually yielding a 17-point loss, Clinton said she alone was best prepared to be commander in chief.
And at an evening rally in Brownsville, Texas, on Wednesday, she continued: "When you begin to talk to your friends, ask them: Who do they want to be in the White House when the phone rings at 3 in the morning with some problem or some crisis? We need a commander in chief who's ready from Day One to be in charge of our country."
The internal friction over Clinton's message was never fully resolved. A schism persists to this day. Some people close to the campaign's inner circle believe Clinton should make more of an effort to show a warmer, softer side before the March 4 primaries. Her next opportunity to present herself to a national audience comes today with a debate against Obama in Austin, to be carried by CNN and Univision.
As they look for where the campaign went wrong, some people knowledgeable about it said that Hillary Clinton bore responsibility because she did not heed calls to limit the overarching power Penn wielded within the brain trust as both its pollster and message-maker.
Some campaign staff did not have access to complete polling data from Penn's research, meaning it was difficult to challenge the messages he was crafting based on those polls, according to a person familiar with the campaign's workings.
Aides went to Clinton repeatedly with these concerns, but she stuck by Penn and kept him in his dual roles, according to people familiar with the campaign.
"Mark did essentially the same job in 2000 [as Clinton ran for the Senate], which was a difficult race, and we prevailed," said one person familiar with Clinton's operation. "He also worked for Bill Clinton in 1996 and prevailed. And he worked for Hillary in 2006" for her reelection to the Senate "and we prevailed. So there's a lot of faith and trust there on behalf of both Clintons. That's the way it had been done, and I think she had faith that it worked."
Penn, in an interview, said that he was playing much the same role he had for the last three decades for a variety of candidates. He said he had no "administrative control" within the Clinton campaign. What is more, Clinton's "compassion" is a side of her he's never tried to hide, he said.
"She is both a strong leader and someone who shows compassion for people, and both of those are important parts of who she is," Penn said.
Asked about complaints that polling data was treated with secrecy, he said: "Polling information goes to the people designated to receive it."
Still, a faction on Clinton's staff believed that she needed to address at a much earlier stage a stubborn and uncomfortable reality: that many people disliked her.
As the campaign unfolded before January's caucuses in Iowa, Clinton succeeded in convincing people that she was prepared and tough enough to be president. But some critics say the campaign failed to make a companion argument: that she is a warmer figure than people might suspect.
"There is a certain part of the electorate that does not like her, because they don't know her," one person knowledgeable about the campaign said. In Iowa, "everybody knew that she was the most qualified and the most experienced and stronger than Obama. But they really wanted to like her. And they hadn't gotten there."