Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- David Axelrod, the seasoned Chicago Democratic political operative who is chief strategist for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, was taken by surprise in the last minute of CBS's "Face the Nation" on Dec. 2. Howard Wolfson, Sen. Hillary Clinton's spokesman, accused Obama of running a "slush fund." In fact, the Clinton campaign was spreading that story privately months ago.

Last summer, a senior Clinton aide told a famous Democratic personage believed favorable to Obama that the Illinois senator was using his "leadership" political-action committee to spread money around the country to grease his presidential prospects. That message was private when Clinton seemed far ahead for the Democratic nomination. It became public when Obama threatened to overtake her.

Before Wolfson spoke out, one of Clinton's close supporters was spreading the word of unspecified defects in Obama that should deter Democrats from supporting him for president. This is the Clinton style that has proved effective for two decades, but Obama has continued to close the gap. This attack mode works best when the accusations are hidden from public view.

Last summer, a few Clinton insiders -- headed by her Senate chief of staff, Tamera Luzzatto -- paid a presumably social visit to the Cape Cod, Mass., vacation home of a prestigious Democrat reported to be in Obama's corner. Luzzatto warned that Obama was ethically challenged because of his leadership PAC. My sources indicated that this was not an isolated incident, and the slush-fund story was spread widely.

In a later incident, a Democrat, not on Clinton's Senate or campaign staffs but close to her, a month ago approached a party activist who has not made a commitment with this message: Skeletons in Obama's closet would make him vulnerable if nominated. He did not elaborate and said the Clinton campaign would keep its anti-Obama information to itself, remembering mutually destructive assaults between Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt in 2004 that enabled John Kerry's nomination.

The Clinton campaign denied all this, claiming a Republican plot. In truth, I have not talked to a single Republican in my reporting of attacks on Obama. In the wake of these denials, Wolfson made public his slush-fund accusation on "Face the Nation," shortly after polls showed Obama passing Clinton for Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses:

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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