With her advisers fearing backlash from Iowa Democrats who cast the first votes of the 2008 presidential race, Clinton denounced the memo hours after it leaked from her headquarters and played down an internal debate over campaign strategy. "I am unalterably committed to competing in Iowa," she told The Associated Press.
The memo from Mike Henry emerged days after a Des Moines Sunday Register poll of likely caucus-goers showed Clinton trailing rivals John Edwards and Barack Obama in Iowa, which is to hold its caucuses Jan. 14, 2008.
"I believe we need a new approach to winning the Democratic nomination," Henry wrote. "This approach involves shifting the focus away from Iowa and running a campaign that is more focused on other early primary states and winning this new national primary."
All the major presidential campaigns have been struggling to adapt to next year's vastly accelerated calendar, with such states as California and New York holding primaries within weeks of Iowa and the other traditional small state powerhouse, New Hampshire. Clinton is under extra pressure now that Obama and Edwards threaten her strategy to project herself as the inevitable nominee.
That image is most fragile in Iowa, which Henry called "our consistently weakest state."
Polls throughout the year in Iowa have generally shown Edwards topping the Democratic field, even as Clinton has led in national polls and most other state surveys. Privately, Clinton advisers, including former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, have acknowledged that she would probably not win Iowa if the election were held anytime soon.
In his memo, Henry argued that winning Iowa would require a huge cash investment — as much as $15 million — that could cripple the campaign later as it moved ahead into the big states.
"We have the opportunity to change the focus of the campaign from a traditional process (Iowa first) to a campaign that favors us," Henry wrote.
After the AP reported Henry's memo Wednesday, Clinton's advisers — including those who had agreed with him — quickly closed ranks behind the Iowa-first strategy and sought to play down divisions within the campaign.
"This memo offered the views of one person," Clinton told the AP. "I didn't see the memo and didn't know about the memo until it apparently fell into the hands of someone outside the campaign."
Clinton also called divisions over electoral strategy "par for the course" for any presidential effort.
"A campaign that doesn't have a difference of opinion is a campaign not well-served," Clinton said. "At the end of the day, I'm the one who makes decisions about the direction of the campaign."
Senior campaign advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are some in Clinton's camp who want to her to skip Iowa and the memo was designed to ensure that the option was fully debated. Others in her inner circle have argued that Iowa has been a focal point of the campaign for too long to be abandoned, and they say that the senator has long shared their view.
Clinton has a full schedule of events in western Iowa beginning on Friday. She is scheduled to campaign in the state the following two weekends as well.
She has won the endorsement of Vilsack and his wife, Christie, who accompany her on virtually all of her campaign stops in the state.
Edwards, who fell just short of winning the state's caucuses in 2004, has campaigned extensively there this time and has held onto much of his support.
Sensing opportunity, Obama's campaign released a memo of its own Wednesday, citing polling in Iowa that suggested he would be the strongest general election candidate.
Ever since Democrat Jimmy Carter emerged from obscurity to win the Iowa caucuses in 1976, the state and its relatively small number of caucus-goers have wielded outsized influence over both parties' presidential contests. Candidates who have dared skip the caucuses to focus efforts elsewhere have generally done so at their peril.
Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, did not compete in Iowa during his first election in 1992, primarily because one of his Democratic rivals, Sen. Tom Harkin, was from the state. Bill Clinton went on to carry Iowa in both the 1992 and 1996 general elections.
Harold Ickes, a top Clinton strategist, said the campaign had been weighing various options for dealing with the rush of nomination contests in early 2008.
"Every campaign games out different scenarios and this is one scenario," he said of the memo. "The campaign is moving in Iowa, is going to stay in Iowa, and Mrs. Clinton is very dedicated to winning the state."
Henry did not return a telephone message left at his office.