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Opinion: Pssst, want the inside story on the inside story?

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Here’s a revealing example of how high-stakes presidential campaigns try to make trouble for each other behind the scenes.

They all do it. The major parties too. Usually, the public doesn’t learn about it because of a self-serving secrecy pact between reporters, who want to get information to write, broadcast or blog, and the campaigns, which each have a vast research operation on their opponents and want to circulate certain embarrassing information about them. The reporters get many more tips than they use, and the better ones do their own research and verification.

Remember back in June when Barack Obama had to apologize publicly for a caustic memo his campaign leaked to reporters about Hillary Clinton’s ties to the Indian American community? We wrote about it here.

To get Clinton’s reaction, a reporter showed the memo to her campaign people, who had no promise to keep. So they turned it around on Obama by leaking it to other reporters with the same secrecy promise to demonstrate the alleged hypocrisy of his ‘politics of hope’ campaign. It’s like a game, isn’t it? Except the stakes are rather high.

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Well, during the last day or so behind the scenes, the Clinton folks, who play hardball, have been shopping around to some writers (not this one) a story idea that a couple of prominent Obama supporters had lobbied the South Carolina Democratic Party’s executive council last week to keep Stephen Colbert off the state’s primary ballot, which they succeeded in doing.

When you think about it, that’s probably a good idea. Colbert, a funny fellow who plays a political talk show host on his Comedy Central show, got Doritos to sponsor his candidacy and claimed to be showing the fundamental hypocrisy of the political system by trying to run in both parties’ primaries.

He’s good for a laugh, and normally serious Tim Russert even had him on the normally respectable ‘Meet the Press,’ for a faux serious candidate interview. The ‘truthiness,’ as usual these days, is that Colbert’s ‘campaign’ provided priceless free publicity for his TV program and new book.

The Clinton folks may also have wanted Colbert off the ballot too, because each vote for...

the comedian is one less for the real politicians. More likely, Clinton leads in South Carolina polls and Obama needs more votes to catch her. And polls indicate he appeals to roughly the same younger, college-educated crowd as Colbert does. So his operatives lobbied against the distracting Colbert candidacy.

The Clinton leak produced a number of news stories, including a prominent one on the widely-read CNN Political Ticker. The stories, which mentioned sources seeking anonymity, implied dark tones of secrecy and unspecified wrongdoing.

Two Obama supporters acknowledged calling party officials, but said they were only seeking information. An unnamed source said the callers were actually strongly opposed to the Colbert candidacy. The Obama campaign denied any involvement. What, are they afraid of losing some late-night laughers?

No matter how persuasive the Obama supporters were, it seems unlikely they were responsible for the overwhelming 13-3 vote against Colbert, who with his commercial sponsor and one-state national campaign was mocking South Carolina’s primaries. He won’t be on the Republican ballot either. Colbert made another publicity spectacle out of abandoning his campaign. And, hopefully, the country will be able to heal.

But, anyway, what’s wrong with a candidate’s representatives expressing an opinion about another candidate to party officials?

The leak was a minor campaign skirmish. It put the Obama folks on the defensive, at least briefly. It occupied some staff time. Maybe it will cost Obama the votes of a few Colbert fans. Maybe it’s all a game between two well-funded political operations built on young, underpaid competitive staffers working to elect the next leader of the free world.

But think about that process for a minute the next time you read or watch an embarrassing ‘revelation’ about some campaign or candidate. That’s how the game works.

-- Andrew Malcolm


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