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Nasty Twists in the Democratic Race

By Susan Estrich

LOS ANGELES -- Is Hillary Clinton "a monster"?

Is Barack Obama no different than Ken Starr?

These are the words we end up eating. But how the campaigns deal with them also tells you something about where we're heading and what's being tested.

In the wake of Clinton's strong showing Tuesday night in Ohio, Texas and, of course, Rhode Island, all eyes and ears were open to just how nasty this fight would get.

We didn't have long to wait.

In Clinton's case, the attack came from professional spokesman Howard Wolfson in a morning conference call that was intended to be widely reported, and was.

"I, for one, do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for president," Wolfson said, reacting to the Obama camp's criticism of Mrs. Clinton for not releasing her tax returns, something she has pledged to do on April 15.

Asked to comment on Wolfson's remark, the senator from New York refused to touch it. "Oh, I'm not going to respond to that," Mrs. Clinton said, leaving it to stand.

Meanwhile, on the Obama front, the campaign clearly was embarrassed by foreign policy adviser Samantha Power's unguarded comments in an interview with, of all places, The Scotsman.

It used to be that you could have fun with interviews with the foreign press, knowing that nothing you said would make it back to any voters until long after the election was over, if ever. Say goodbye to those days; say hello to Matt Drudge.

Professor Power, who is a respected professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and was unpaid senior adviser to the Obama camp, will have more time for academic work in coming days.

Her description of the New York senator as "a monster" was all over the place, beginning with the much-read DrudgeReport, within hours, as were some of her other juicy quotes, which clearly had not been meant for an American audience.

Said Professor Power: "She is a monster, too -- that is off the record -- she is stooping to anything." The Scotsman didn't treat it as being off the record, and neither did anyone else.

"Interestingly, the people in her innermost circle seem to not mind her; I think they really love her." Not Power.

"You just look at her and think, 'Ergh.' But if you are poor and she is telling you some story about how Obama is going to take your job away, maybe it will be more effective," the story continued. "The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive."

Of course, Power really didn't mean any of it. Or so she now is being forced to say, after the comments caused the explosion they did. Sen. Obama apologized. Power resigned from her unpaid position in the campaign.

She will now be free to have lunch with Billy Shaheen, the unpaid Clinton adviser (and spouse of former New Hampshire Gov. and now Senate candidate Jeanne Shaheen) who was forced to resign when he speculated about how the Republicans might use rumors that Obama had both used and sold drugs in a general election campaign.

The good news for the Obama campaign is that they dealt with the Power snafu faster and more effectively than they did with their last snafu with an outspoken academic unpaid adviser, the economics professor from the University of Chicago who, it was reported, had undermined the candidate's anti-NAFTA stance in private meetings with Canadian officials.

In that case, the campaign danced for days around conflicting reports rather than simply cutting the adviser loose, as we call it in politics, which is another way of saying throwing him overboard, which is, of course, what they did with Professor Power.

The fact that they moved swiftly this time is a sign that they are learning about the necessities of waging the kind of battle they're stuck in. The fact that they got in the mess at all is a sign of just how difficult that fight is going to be.

Of course, no one threw Howard Wolfson overboard. He is an experienced sailor, and his jab was not meant for retraction. Obama's challenge is that he's supposed to be running a different kind of campaign, a positive and honorable one, in what is certain to be a period of tough jabs.

Whether he can do that and at the same time take on Hillary Clinton, whose people will be jabbing away, is the tricky challenge facing the Obama campaign.

People hate negative tactics, but the fact is, as the 3 a.m. ad demonstrates, they can be very effective. How to fight them without getting covered with mud is the challenge Obama and his advisers must confront. All I can say, to quote Professor Power, is "Ergh." This is the "ergh" period of the campaign, and it's not likely to end soon.

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