POLITICS
03/28/2008 02:45 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Iowa Nears, Clinton Allies Quietly Raise Obama's Cocaine Use

On Monday morning, Hillary Clinton's campaign included a cryptic, somewhat ominous, note in an email to journalists and supporters:

Something to Chew On: Respected columnist David Yepsen notes that "it's important for Democrats to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. Clinton's negatives are well-known, Obama's less so. Any shortcomings, inconsistencies or misstatements in Obama's past will be exploited by Republicans in the fall campaign if he's the nominee. It's best for Democrats to vet them now."

The Clinton campaign email did not spell out Obama's "shortcomings, inconsistencies or misstatements," but other Democratic activists have quietly received messages from Clinton allies pointing in the likely direction. Those messages provided a link to an Iowa Independent story by Douglas Burns headlined "The Politics Of Obama's Past Cocaine Use."

Burns' article on Obama posed a question that Clinton has been unwilling to raise herself and that has received little attention during the Democratic primary battles: If Barack Obama becomes the nominee, will the GOP be able to turn his acknowledged cocaine use into a debilitating issue.

Burns cited two June polls.

One, a survey by Scripps Howard, found that 58 percent of respondents believed American voters are not ready to accept a president "who tried cocaine as an adult." The other, by the New York Times, found that 74 percent said most people they know would not vote for a presidential candidate who has ever used cocaine.

"What will be fascinating to watch is whether Americans' views on cocaine will play out in the election booths as a defining factor or anything close to that. If it does, that could spell trouble for Obama," Burns wrote.

"Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man," Obama wrote in his book Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. "The highs hadn't been about that, me trying to prove what a down brother I was. Not by then, anyway. I got high for just the opposite effect, something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory."

The issue has not been publicly raised by Obama's opponents, and only occasionally by reporters. On CBS' 60 Minutes, Obama said:

It's not something that I'm proud of, but that's part of the journey that I've taken. I like to think that by letting people know the mistakes I've made that maybe young people behind me are looking and saying 'You know what? This is a guy who made mistakes and he was able to right his life and get on track.' And that's I think an important message.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director, said the campaign has not tried to make use of Obama's past cocaine use and that it would not attempt to do so in the future. "Candidates personal lives should not be a part of this campaign," Wolfson said.

The raising of questions about Obama's electability poses a larger dilemma for strategists in both parties during the primary season.

On one side, there is a strong case to be made that wounds opened during primary fights only make the job easier for the opposition in the general election. Republicans, in theory, are supposed to honor Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: Speak No Ill of a Fellow Republican -- although few, in fact, do abide by this precept.

Yet there is the counter argument: that a crucial function of the primaries is to weed out candidates who will be losers in the general election; that the intraparty fights are the first tests of how well the competitors are likely to do next November.

In 1988, for example, the Democratic primaries failed to fully exhume Michael Dukakis' handling of the Willie Horton controversy, and the Horton case became a cause celebre in the general election.

This dilemma is only likely to intensify as the Obama campaign is beginning to demonstrate that it is prepared to throw a punch or two that some might view as below the belt.

Hillary Clinton's "electability" has always been a subtext in the contest, although her opponents have been very cautious in the ways they have raised the issue. With the Iowa caucuses less than a month away, Obama aides are doing so more aggressively, if indirectly, by pointing reporters to a column by Bloomberg executive editor Albert R. Hunt that describes a recent focus group of Democratic voters in Philadelphia.

"[The participants'] concerns about Clinton, 60, a New York senator, are that she is devious, calculating and, fairly or not, a divisive figure in American politics," Hunt wrote - music to the ears of the Obama camp.

Members of the focus group, according to Hunt, said that Obama "would be inspirational, motivating, charismatic and compassionate. After praising Clinton's experience and intelligence, they say she would be demanding, difficult, maybe even a little scary."