Clinton’s Right-Hand Woman Scrambles for a Win in Iowa

By: Wall Street Journal

Patti Solis Doyle Steers Campaign, Juggling Family Role, Staff Egos

DES MOINES, Iowa — With snow and sleet pounding her hotel window, campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle dialed in to an early-morning strategy debate a few weeks ago among the top advisers of Hillary Clinton, who were bickering over stumbles that had caused Sen. Clinton to lose her edge in Iowa opinion polls.

Strategist and pollster Mark Penn insisted the campaign shouldn’t abandon its “strength and experience” message. Picture former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he said.

Others on the call, including advertising adviser Mandy Grunwald, wanted to shift the focus of commercials and campaign stops to feature the warm and positive side of Sen. Clinton — a concept Mr. Penn once dismissed as “too Mary Tyler Moore.”

Ms. Solis Doyle, in her pajamas, stopped putting on her makeup and cut in. “Hillary’s character is being attacked,” she said, according to people on the call. “Now’s the time to put Hillary as a person front and center. Right?” Over the phone came the chorus from the advisers. “Right.” The debate was over. A tactical shift to humanize the candidate and stress her likeability began immediately.

Looking close to invincible two months ago, Sen. Clinton finds herself in a tightening race for the Democratic presidential nomination. With eight days to go before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, Ms. Solis Doyle, a 42-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants who never ran a presidential effort before, is trying to re-energize Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.

For both, it’s the fight of their careers. In the caucuses, Mrs. Clinton faces a strengthening Barack Obama and a consistently competitive John Edwards. The three are in a statistical dead heat. Although Mrs. Clinton retains a strong lead in national polls and her change in message is playing well, if she loses Iowa, she could be hobbled going into New Hampshire and other primaries. By this month, her problems here had stirred speculation about a campaign shake-up, including a demotion of Ms. Solis Doyle.

Yet even as this idea circulated, Ms. Solis Doyle was gaining influence inside the campaign. She is moving beyond executing strategy to helping make it. She has overseen new commercials featuring personal stories of “the Hillary I Know” and an all-county blitz through Iowa in a “Hill-a-Copter.” She talks and emails with her boss several times a day, with prompts like “Smile more.” She is making budget decisions, including a recent call to double the length of commercials in Iowa to 60 seconds.

Sen. Clinton dismisses speculation about her organization. “There’s no turmoil, no shake-up,” she says. “I have total trust in Patti, who’s my campaign manager, confidante and friend.”

As for Ms. Solis Doyle herself, “I’m tough as dirt,” she says. “Becoming a target [of rumor] won’t get me off my game.”

After operating from the Washington area for months, she has moved to Iowa full time to oversee a paid staff of hundreds, plus countless volunteers. Among her challenges is asserting control over some big egos. The campaign has two power centers: longtime advisers to former President Clinton — “the white boys,” insiders call them — and “Hillaryland,” a group of people, mostly women, who’ve been with her since she was First Lady.

Ms. Solis Doyle’s source of power is the bond she has with the candidate. She was the first person Mrs. Clinton hired in 1991, during Bill Clinton’s presidential run. When he won, she became the first lady’s scheduler and a steady presence during crises, from Whitewater to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Mrs. Clinton took part in her aide’s wedding and held a baby shower for her in the East Room. “Patti channels Hillary,” says scheduler Kim Molstre. Policy director Neera Tanden adds, “She is the first and last person Hillary talks to on any issue. Nobody knows Hillary better than Patti does.”

When she got the top post in Mrs. Clinton’s presidential effort earlier this year, some more-experienced campaign pros figured Ms. Solis Doyle was picked for her devotion, or to win points with the Hispanic community. “There were a lot of doubts whether Patti was up to the job,” says Harold Ickes, a senior campaign adviser. “She has dispelled that in spades.”

One worry was that her closeness to the candidate could blind her to problems she ought to spot and address. After other Democrats went on the attack during an October debate, Ms. Solis Doyle sent out a fund-raising appeal saying the candidate was “one strong woman.” That led some to accuse her of “playing the gender card.”

Ms. Solis Doyle says her biggest problem isn’t running the campaign per se but living apart from her two young children, who remain with her husband in Washington. Ten days ago she flew home to try to pack about two weeks’ worth of Christmas decorating, shopping and baking into about 24 hours, including making sopa de fideo Mexican noodles for her 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. Ms. Solis Doyle has missed teacher-parent conferences and her children’s holiday programs at school this year. When she left for the airport to return to Iowa, she sobbed in the cab.

Patti Solis grew up a gangly girl with cat-eye glasses and armfuls of books in the working-class Pilsen section of Chicago, the youngest of six children. She was the favorite of her father, Santiago Solis, who first entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico with almost no education. (Both parents and the four siblings born in Mexico became U.S. citizens later.) When the first son got involved in Chicago politics, Patti and other family members handed out leaflets and attended his rallies. She went to Northwestern University on scholarship and followed her brother, who became an alderman, into Chicago politics.

At the start of Bill Clinton’s presidential bid in 1991, a Chicago political consultant he’d hired sent Ms. Solis to Arkansas to work on the campaign. She was assigned to Hillary Clinton.

“Who’s Hillary?” she recalls asking. “Ah, man, I don’t want to work for the wife.” She was even surer after meeting “this lady in long blond hair with a headband.”

But soon the two were on the campaign trail, with a trip to Florida. “It was barely short of disaster,” Mrs. Clinton recalls. “Neither one of us knew what we were doing.” Though they had grown up very differently — Sen. Clinton in an upper-middle-class suburb and Ms. Solis Doyle in a mainly immigrant city neighborhood — both were driven, and they found common ground in their strong fathers.

When the Clintons moved into the White House, Ms. Solis Doyle became scheduling director for the first lady. There, what her family and friends call her “Latina queena” persona emerged: playful, loud and domineering.

“I would be tongue-tied because Patti was so sweet and pretty,” recalls Jeff Forbes, who worked as President Clinton’s scheduler. But, he adds, “When it came to protecting Hillary, if you weren’t with her you felt the pain, and deservedly so.”

While working in the White House, Ms. Solis married Jim Doyle, a corporate lawyer. Mrs. Clinton, on a trip to Chicago, met her aide’s parents and praised Mr. Doyle to them. When Ms. Solis Doyle had her first baby, Mrs. Clinton urged her to bring her crib into the White House. Often a “baby sleeping” sign would be hanging on her office door.

Ms. Solis Doyle proved her chops as a strategist helping in Mrs. Clinton’s New York Senate campaign in 2000. She was credited with helping define Mrs. Clinton more broadly than as a former first lady and making sure she spent a lot of time in critical upstate counties. In recent years, she ran Sen. Clinton’s political operation.

For the presidential run, Ms. Solis Doyle assembled a campaign team in Arlington, Va., that was heavy on longtime Clinton advisers who had worked together for years. While she sat atop the organization chart, Mr. Penn, with confidence in his firmly held opinions, took the lead in setting the strategy and message. Ms. Grunwald, who has done the Clintons’ commercials for years, became another big player. Also at the top of the hierarchy was Terry McAuliffe, campaign chair, who is close to the Clintons and is a fund-raising machine.

For the first several months, the campaign surged on Mr. Penn’s message of “strength and experience,” on robust fund raising (though Mr. Obama raised more at the start) and on endorsements from establishment figures.

But in August, the campaign faced a fund-raising scandal. The Wall Street Journal disclosed that big contributor Norman Hsu, who had bundled together nearly $1 million in donations, brought in some of them from people who seemed unlikely to be able to afford them. Within days, he was exposed as a fugitive from an old grand-larceny charge. Sen. Clinton gave up all of the donations.

In October, Sen. Clinton gave her rivals an opening to challenge her more forcefully, as she stumbled when asked a debate question about the wisdom of giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Ms. Solis Doyle braced for negative reaction to her candidate’s attempt to explain both sides of the issue. In the following days, she and Mrs. Clinton discussed the senator’s immigration-reform plan, which includes an “earned pass to citizenship.” Ms. Solis Doyle told Mrs. Clinton that if her father — who twice entered the U.S. illegally before managing to come legally — were still alive, “he would agree that immigrants should play by the rules and work hard.”

Then on Nov. 10, when all the candidates showed up in Des Moines for an important night of dinner speeches, Sen. Obama gave a powerful address, setting in motion a surge in Iowa polls. Suddenly, Mrs. Clinton was on the defensive. “We’re getting the crap beat out of us,” Ms. Solis Doyle told her team several days later.

Fighting back, Sen. Clinton criticized Sen. Obama’s health-care plan as not “universal.” She slammed him for saying his foreign-policy experience included having lived in Indonesia as a child. When her team chided him for having aspired to the White House even as a youth, his campaign called it a desperation tactic. Some Iowa voters were turned off.

Ms. Solis Doyle decided to move to Iowa for the next two months. On Nov. 18, at her last full weekend at home before the caucuses, she prepared dinner for her family while listening to a CD of her late father’s favorite Latino music. While daughter Solis (called “Lee”) and son Joey watched a video, she played a spirited game of Scrabble with her husband, who once worked for Mr. Penn’s polling firm but now runs a policy research firm.

Soon, Joey crawled into her lap. Ms. Solis Doyle told her kids, “I promise that when this campaign is over, I’m taking a year off to focus on being your mom.”

Back in Des Moines, Ms. Solis Doyle, switching from stylish suits to jeans, snow boots and a suede hat, assembled her staff in their windowless headquarters in an office park. “We can’t give up on excitement and passion,” she told them.

Coffee-fueled, she was running around the office shoeless by day’s end, pepping up workers at the phone banks. Her cellphone ring tone is the theme from the Broadway show “Rent,” and campaign workers broke out in song when they heard it.

In recent weeks, Ms. Solis Doyle, Ms. Grunwald and communications chief Howard Wolfson have been taking the lead in shifting the focus to the candidate’s “likeability” instead of her readiness to be commander-in-chief. It’s a move that Mr. Penn agrees with, though he describes the new strategy as consistent with his message of “having the right combination of strength and experience, with compassion.”

Former President Clinton, too, has stepped up his input. “He’s the best political mind in the world,” Ms. Solis Doyle says. “Of course I’m listening to him.”

The stakes are high, tempers hot. Ms. Solis Doyle blew up two weeks ago when a campaign official in New Hampshire was quoted as questioning Sen. Obama’s electability, given his acknowledged cocaine use as a young man. “I won’t put up with this. It’s inappropriate,” Ms. Solis Doyle said, accepting the official’s resignation. She frowned when Mr. Penn stepped out to talk to the media after the final Iowa debate Dec. 13 and ended up referring to the cocaine issue again.

The heightened tension has made Ms. Solis Doyle much less patient. Some messages from friends, although encouraging her to hang in there, make her bristle. “Stop it,” she fired back in one email. “I know what I’m doing and I’m doing it.”

Ms. Solis Doyle redid her boss’s calendar to ensure that Sen. Clinton, and her husband too, would be in Iowa nonstop except for two days last weekend and two days for Christmas.

After the final Iowa debate, Ms. Solis Doyle jumped into an SUV in Sen. Clinton’s motorcade and headed to another campaign event. While the senator talked to a group of 50 women at a supporter’s home, Ms. Solis Doyle slipped into the master bathroom to work, cellphone to her ear and tissues on her runny nose.

She arranged for Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd to hitch a ride with Sen. Clinton on her private plane for an unexpected Senate vote (which was then canceled). She set up Iowa appearances for basketball great Magic Johnson, a Clinton supporter, as well as a bus filled with Mrs. Clinton’s childhood friends.

A few minutes later, off the phone, Ms. Solis Doyle realized her candidate had already left in her motorcade. She headed back to the campaign office. On the way, she called a colleague. “It’s cold, I’m tired, I’m up all night,” she said. “We have only a few days left before Iowa.”

Write to Monica Langley at

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