After a few well-mannered rounds, it's time for the fight for the White House to get down and dirty

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The Independent US

The storm sirens were sounding in the Hillary Clinton camp as Barack Obama prepared to pay her back in kind for the negative attacks she unleashed on him in the run up to the Texas and Ohio primaries.

"What's good for the gander is good for the goose," one Obama aide warned darkly.

Opposition research at Obama headquarters – the dirt-hunters – will be rummaging right now through the deep Clinton closet of past indiscretions and embarrassments. But she will not be the only candidate getting anxious. Mr Obama has some skeletons to worry about; so too does John McCain.

By historical standards the 2008 race to the White House has so far been pretty polite, notwithstanding the poison darts shot at Mr Obama in recent days. Lee Atwater, the late Republican strategist who made an art out of "yard-dog" campaigning, would have thought it rather sweet.

That, however, will surely change, particularly for the two Democrats. It is seven weeks until the next big showdown between them in Pennsylvania. That leaves lots of time to trawl for bad-smelling baggage.

All three candidates know already where some of their problems may lie but sometimes knowing your weak points is still not enough.

Michael Dukakis understood he might have a problem in 1988 over Willie Horton, a convicted murderer he had released from prison while governor of Massachusetts. Just as he feared, George Bush Snr went after him on it, releasing a TV ad that all alone did his campaign in. The man behind the spot, of course, was Mr Atwater.

John McCain

OLD HAT... BUT STILL TOXIC?

When he ran in 2000, Mr McCain was faced with stories about his temperament and explosive temper. Some of this has surfaced again this year but so far with little apparent impact. His team has also turned a New York Times article detailing a possibly inappropriate affair with a Washington lobbyist some years ago against the newspaper. More dangerous, however, are questions about McCain's holier-than-thou positions on dealings with lobbyists.

FRESH ON THE RADAR

Mr McCain has a mess on his hands with his relationship with the Texas mega-church preacher John Hagee, who has endorsed him and appeared with him at public events. If Mr McCain has so far refused to detach himself from Mr Hagee, it is because he might help with the conservative right. But there are plenty of reasons to do so, and fast. Mr Hagee has been quoted in newspapers as calling the Catholic Church "the great whore," a "false cult system" and "the apostate church". He also was foremost among conservative Christians to call Hurricane Katrina "God's wrath" for the gay parades held in New Orleans.

Hillary Clinton

OLD HAT ... BUT STILL TOXIC?

Whitewater, Travelgate, the death of Vince Foster... When it comes to the myriad scandals that dogged Bill Clinton's two administrations, it is hard for Barack Obama's team to know where to start. What part did Hillary play in these affairs and how appropriate were her actions in trying to protect Bill? Whether voters will have the stomach for all the old Clinton chestnuts is another matter, however.

FRESH ON THE RADAR

Mr Obama's people are practically drooling after word came from the US National Archives that it is finally preparing to release about 10,000 pages of records detailing Bill Clinton's White House activities while he led the country. Hillary Clinton has made much about her "superior experience" because of her years as first lady. But these documents, which she would much rather not see surface, may contain potentially embarrassing titbits. Following intense pressure from Mr Obama, the Clintons' tax records are also set to be released on about 15 April – and could also prove highly awkward. Questions are swirling around foreign benefactors of the Clinton family, for instance in Kazakhstan.

Barack Obama

OLD HAT ... BUT STILL TOXIC?

On the eve the Texas vote, Mr Obama still felt he had to put to rest internet-spawned rumours that he is a Muslim who would put his hand on the Koran to take the Oath of Office. He simply insisted that he is a Christian. Nonsensical – and bigoted – though these stories might be, he can never quite shake them off. Of course, the Obama-Osama rhyme does not help, nor his second name, Hussein.

FRESH ON THE RADAR

It was bad luck, indeed, that the corruption trial of Tony Rezko, a Chicago wheeler-dealer and erstwhile backer of Mr Obama, began on Monday on the eve of voting in Texas and Ohio. Just how close were they and how much did Mr Obama know? The court may hear embarrassing details. Mr Obama also has a problem with his membership of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The church and its pastor, Jeremiah Wright, espouse a seemingly exclusionary (racist?) "black value system". Mr Wright, seen by some as a black separatist, could prove a liability. Last week, Mr Obama was also forced to distance himself from the Nation of Islam leader Luis Farrakhan, who has endorsed him.

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