Robert Novak

"There's a lot that voters don't know about Barack Obama," said Wolfson, "and one thing that they don't know we found this week, which is that he has been using and operating a so-called leadership PAC in apparent contravention of campaign-finance laws." Wolfson demanded that Axelrod say whether he would "shut down Sen. Obama's slush fund." With only 20 seconds left, Axelrod's answer sounded lame: "I think it is shut down, Howard. I don't know that there's any money left in it."

With more time, Axelrod might have noted that Obama's PAC contributed to Clinton's 2006 New York re-election and in the current cycle to Jeanne Shaheen's Senate campaign in New Hampshire though her husband, Bill Shaheen, heads that state's Clinton campaign. The slush fund just did not measure up to claims of dark improprieties by Obama, and the Clinton campaign did not pursue the issue after volleys were exchanged between the candidates.

The attack strategy has not affected Obama, and Clinton's aura of inevitability fades. Not only has she fallen behind in Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses, but polls show subsequent primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina are too close to call. Howard Dean was in a much stronger position in post-Iowa primaries in 2004 than Clinton is today, when his third-place finish in Iowa was followed by his national collapse.

The use of the phrase "slush fund" in American politics is hoary, dating back to a $5 million appropriation in 1874 administered by the federal Treasury, according to "Safire's New Political Dictionary." In 1952, contributions to a slush fund for the use of vice presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon nearly forced him off the Republican ticket. When Hillary Clinton started slipping two weeks ago, her campaign responded by unlimbering the Obama slush fund. The fact that this bomb proved pretty much a dud raises doubt about the whispers of impropriety by this untried new candidate.

Robert Novak

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

©Creators Syndicate