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A sweet Saturday mystery: Clinton, Obama and Mr. X

November 17, 2007 |  5:32 pm

What a glorious afternoon for political conspiracy theorists! Not even John LeCarre could unravel this one right away. But we'll give it a try here just for fun now.

It started this morning with the posting of a regular online column by conservative Robert Novak, who's been involved with more than his share of leaked stories, including the notorious Plame affair of recent years. Novak is a curmudgeonly old Washington veteran much courted by GOP sources seeking to reach their base, but not known for his Democratic Party connections. Still, he could be useful to them at times.

Naming no sources, Novak reported this morning in a notebook-style weekly online collection of items that "agents of Sen. Hillary Clinton are spreading the word in Democratic circles" that they have scandalous information on Sen. Barack Obama but have decided not to use it against him. The column even got a red-letter mention on the Drudge Report, which guaranteed wide notice in political circles.

How's that for trying to have it both ways--smear a guy while claiming you're so high-minded and aren't really smearing him because you won't release the (no doubt, terrible) details? That's assuming, by the way, that there really are salacious details to be withheld, a large assumption. There's no proof of anything right now. And wasn't it Hillary who was complaining about mud-slinging at the debate the other night?

But, wait. This Novak item serves Obama's purpose too because the Clinton machine is notorious for playing hardball and this is just the kind of thing that team might do. So as a defensive move to minimize the impact of any such release and to cleverly seize the high ground and turn the Novak report back on the Clintons as a reminder of their past sleazy behind-the-scene machinations, the .... 

politics of hope Obama campaign took the unusual step of releasing a statement not from the campaign but directly from the candidate himself, adding visibility. In it Obama said:

"If the purpose of this shameless item was to daunt or discourage me or supporters of our campaign from challenging and changing the politics of Washington, it will fail. In fact, it will only serve to steel our resolve. But in the interest of our party, and her own reputation, Senator Clinton should either make public any and all information referred to in the item, or concede the truth: that there is none.

"She of all people, having complained so often about 'the politics of personal destruction,' should move quickly to either stand by or renounce these tactics. I am prepared to stand up to that kind of politics, whether it's deployed by candidates in our party, in the other party or by any third party."

Notice how Obama tries to tie Clinton to the old Washington politics, using the unsourced, unconfirmed innuendoes of a conservative Republican reporter initially aimed at him.

Now, what about the Clinton campaign? In an e-mail to Mike Allen and Ben Smith at Politico.com, Howard Wolfson (note, not Clinton herself) tried to deflect the anti-Clinton accusations toward Republicans and back onto the familiar Obama inexperience argument. He said:

"Once again Sen. Obama is echoing Republican talking points, this time from Bob Novak. This is how Republicans work. A Republican-leaning journalist runs a blind item designed to set Democrats against one another. Experienced Democrats see this for what it is.

"Others get distracted and thrown off their games. Voters should be concerned about the readiness of any Democrat inexperienced enough to fall for this. There is only one campaign in this race that has actually engaged in the very practice that Sen. Obama is decrying, and it's his. We have no idea what Mr. Novak's item is about and reject it totally. Instead of pointing fingers at us, Sen. Obama should get back to the issues and focus on what this election is really about."

It's probably no coincidence that this happened on a slow-news Saturday as the primary/caucus campaigns entered their final seven weeks and the races in both parties appeared to be tightening. Someone has started push-polling against Mitt Romney too, as we reported this morning.

Political leaks--or in this case, insinuations of a non-leak--can be tricky things with unintended consequences. Back in 2000, five days before the general election, thinking there would be insufficient time for the Bush-Cheney ticket to recover, someone leaked word to a Maine TV station about a long-ago DUI arrest there of George W. Bush. Democrats often forget it was Carl Cameron of Fox News who made that a national story.

The worried Bush campaign's internal polling showed that his five-point lead in Maine became overnight a five-point deficit there and he lost that state in the Electoral College. Which, of course, is what ended up making Florida's electoral votes so decisive, culminating in the Republicans' Supreme Court victory in part because of an anti-Bush leak in Maine.

Of course, other scenarios are possible in today's nest of potential conspiracies. Who would benefit most right now in the Democratic contest from Obama and Clinton going at each other so badly they hurt each other?

Some may recall the 2004 Iowa caucus contest when Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt assaulted each other so furiously in the closing weeks that Iowans turned to someone else. John Kerry came sneaking right up the middle to win with someone named John Edwards right on his tail.

--Andrew Malcolm

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