Presidential hopefuls get dirty as they slug it out

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The most expensive US presidential election in history is fast degenerating into the dirtiest, with Republican and Democratic candidates crying foul as their campaigns are hit by smear and innuendo.

This weekend it was Barack Obama's turn to suffer as a Washington Post columnist claimed that Hillary Clinton's campaign was sitting on "scandalous" information about her rival.

The scurrilous item appeared only in an online column but it received immediate attention thanks to the muck-raking Drudge Report. The author Robert Novak, who has his ear to the ground when it comes to leaks and smears, provided no details on the nature of the alleged scandal and for which no proof seems to exist. The item might well have been lifted from Sun Tzu's Art of War, however, as its impact was immediate and destabilising. It prompted a furious Barack Obama to issue an immediate statement in in which he said: "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. The cause of change in this country will not be deterred or sidetracked by the old Swift Boat politics."

The Swift Boat reference resonates deeply with Democrats who saw John Kerry, their war-hero candidate in the 2004 elections, crushed by a smear campaign that cast doubt on his heroism and courage during that war. Mr Kerry was later blamed by fellow Democrats for refusing to forcibly strike back at his accusers, a mistake Mr Obama has no intention of making. Stung by his accusations, the Clinton campaign said it had "no idea" what the item was about and smugly suggested that Mr Obama had fallen into a Republican trap.

Getting under an opponent's skin is all part of the "playbook" of American politics. The idea is to first make them react to an outrageous accusation and then sit back and watch the implosion.

After all, that is how George Bush got himself onto the Republican ticket and into the White House in 2000. Trounced by Senator John McCain in the New Hampshire primary of that year, when the campaign moved to South Carolina Mr Bush paid for and attended an event at which Mr McCain was accused of being a traitor to the Vietnam War veterans. Mr Bush then ran a $34m advertising campaign saying he was a "calculating and conniving politician". From the church pulpits and talk radio networks the word went out that Mr McCain was for abortion, had fathered a black child out of wedlock and that his wife was a drug addict. Mr McCain did not fight back. But it is not just Democrats who are being attacked as the 2008 presidential campaign approaches its first real hurdle, the Iowa caucus on 3 January. Last week pollsters telephoned Iowa voters asking negative questions about Republican Mitt Romney's Mormon faith. Iowa's voters, many of them staunch Christians, were asked if Mr Romney belonged to a cult, what they thought about the practice of "baptising the dead" and claimed the Book of Mormon was on a par with the Bible. The calls were traced to a number linked to the polling firm of Rudy Giuliani.

A spokesman for Mr Romney said: "Whatever campaign is engaging in this type of awful religious bigotry as a line of political attack, it is repulsive and, to put it bluntly, un-American."

The Giuliani campaign denials rang hollow.