MARION, Iowa—A day after a tense exchange with rival Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton over a column reporting her campaign was spreading innuendo of an unspecified scandal involving Barack Obama, Obama declared at a press conference that he would respond forcefully to any allegations of wrongdoing on his part.
"We don't want anybody to have any doubts that when it comes to these kinds of practices, I won't tolerate it," Obama said, responding to reporters' questions on the controversy. "In the era of the blogosphere…if you don't get on this stuff quick, then it starts drifting around."
With Obama addressing the controversy at a news conference with television cameras rolling, his comments are likely to keep the story alive.
The skirmish erupted Saturday after conservative columnist Robert Novak reported in a column Saturday that "agents" of the Clinton campaign had been "spreading the word in Democratic circles that she has scandalous information about her principal opponent (Obama)." Novak did not offer any details on the information.
The Obama campaign swiftly responded, calling the report "devoid of any facts, but heavy on innuendo and insinuation."
In a written statement, Obama challenged Clinton's campaign to either make the information public "or concede the truth: that there is none."
By the end of the day, the Clinton campaign denied that it was spreading suggestions of a scandal involving Obama and criticized his reaction, arguing that he was too quick to believe the worst about the former first lady and it showed inexperience on his part.
"A Republican-leaning journalist runs a blind item designed to set Democrats against one another. Experienced Democrats see this for what it is. Others get distracted and thrown off their games," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said in a written statement.
At the news conference this morning, Obama called that "silly."
" The fact of the matter is that we are letting Democratic voters know and we are letting Republican operatives know and we are letting other people know that we will respond swiftly and forcefully when there's untruths being floated out there," Obama said.
He added that he thought it was important to get a denial of any negative information on the record immediately.
"We wanted to make sure that it was clear, on the record, that in fact it wasn't the case, right? There was no other way for us to make absolutely certain that people did not have any doubts that in fact this was not true," Obama said.
Obama sidestepped a question about whether he had any other signs that the Clinton camp was spreading negative innuendo about him.
Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said the story is "getting ridiculous."
"Senator Obama knows that our campaign responded instantly with
a clear denial. Senator Obama is manufacturing an issue to distract voters
from a disastrous debate performance that revealed that his health care plan
doesn¹t cover every American," Singer said in a response sent by e-mail.
A transcript of the relevant portion of the news conference follows:
Q. Senator, yesterday you had a very strong response to some innuendo that was out there. And I was kind of struck by your strong response. And I was wondering, have you picked up any other signs, other than this Novak column, that the Clinton camp may spreading this or other innuendo about you?
A. I think it is very important to send a clear message that whether it is coming from our party, the other party, third parties, 527s that our campaign will not tolerate this kind of slime politics. We just won't tolerate it. Now, Sen. Clinton's campaign, after 3 iterations of it said they do not engage in these practices and they don't have any information that is scandalous, as was referred to in the Novak column. And we take them at their word. But we don't want anybody to have any doubts that when it comes to these kinds of practices, I won't tolerate it. You know, I have lived for 46 years now and have been in politics for close to two decades and I really value my reputation and my character and my family. And in the era of the blogosphere, that we have seen what happened to John McCain in 2000, we have seen what happened with John Kerry in 2004. You know, if you don't get on this stuff quick, then it starts drifting around. And that's not something that I'm gonna accept, because that's exactly the kind of politics I think we need to change.
Q. But no independent, you haven't picked up any signs yourself that Clinton's spreading this?
A. I will take them at their word when they said that they weren't responsible.
Q. So you're not gonna say one way or the other on that?
Q. Senator, why would you give three paragraphs in a conservative column, you've obviously been reading Robert Novak a long time, why would you give that the credence that you gave it yesterday without any substantiality on his part?
A. Look, the Clinton campaign didn't come out and deny it initially. I mean it would have been great if we had just sat back and they had indicated it wasn't true. This is a syndicated columnist, who is carried in the Chicago Sun-Times among other newspapers. And, no, I wasn't indicating that Mike was with the Sun-Times. The point is that these kind of things get wide circulation. And we've seen how stuff starts and if you don't nip it at the bud, then it ends up growing. And we want to make sure that everybody understands I don't play this style, and I won't.
Q. Senator, what is your reaction to the Clinton campaign saying it shows you're inexperienced and you fell into a trap, a Republican trap?
A. Oh, I think that's silly. The fact of the matter is that we are letting Democratic voters know and we are letting Republican operatives know and we are letting other people know that we will respond swiftly and forcefully when there's untruths being floated out there. An as I said, you know, the political environment has changed. Something gets on the Internet and it's halfway around the world before you blink an eye. We think it's very important to be very clear about how we're not gonna tolerate it. Now, what we said in our statement originally was, if in fact, this is not something that is true, then all the Clinton Administration needs to do is, all the Clinton operation needed to do was just say it wasn't true. It took two, three times to get that answer.
Q. Sir, just one other point on this. Back in February when David Geffen said some disparaging things about Sen. Clinton printed in Maureen Dowd's column the Clinton campaign went nuts and called upon you to distance yourself from it. And you said why should I distance myself from something I didn't even say. I mean why should the Clinton campaign distance themselves from a blind item, with no evidence, nobody coming forward to say whose making these charges. Why should they distance themselves?
A. No, no, no, no. Wait. This is entirely different. You know, with respect to the Geffen incident, he's not, he doesn't work for my campaign, he's not associated with my campaign other than having done a fundraiser with us. I mean Clinton supporters have said disparaging things about me all the time, and I don't ask them to apologize. I don't ask the Clinton campaign to apologize for a statement that one of their supporters makes about me. This is different. There was a item that indicated that they were engaging in this activity. We asked that they deny that that, in fact,that was the case. When they finally did, we said we take your word for it. But we wanted to make sure that it was clear, on the record, that in fact it wasn't the case, right? There was no other way for us to make absolutely certain that people did not have any doubts that in fact this was not true.
Q In terms of how you found out they were distancing themselves, did you receive a phone call from the Clinton campaign or was this all through statements?
A. No. This was all done through statements. But this is my point, I mean, you know, if they wanted to let us know this wasn't true, they could have.
Q. Why didn't they call?
A. You'll have to ask them.
If the Clinton campaign had denounced the Novak column right away, there never would have been a story.