The Republican National Committee was quick to link President-elect Barack Obama to the alleged misdeeds of Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has been charged with conspiring to sell Obama's U.S. Senate seat for favors ranging from money to jobs.
But as details of the charges against Blagojevich emerged Tuesday, it increasingly appeared that the president-elect may have passed an early and very public ethics test.
Excerpts of conversations secretly taped by federal investigators captured the governor repeatedly and profanely denouncing Obama, and bitterly complaining that the president-elect or members of his team were offering only "appreciation" for consideration of their preferred Senate candidate.
That candidate, referred to in the charges as "Candidate 1," is believed to be longtime Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who since has been named a senior White House adviser in the incoming administration.
"This is Illinois politics at its finest, but right now it isn't about Obama – other than the fact that he came out of Illinois politics," says longtime GOP strategist Ed Rollins. "The mere fact that he was not willing to deal is a plus. He didn't push it beyond recommending her, and he wasn't about to play ball."
However, the reality that the two men emerged from the same rough-and-tumble political machine and had many political associates in common has given Republicans fodder.
After Obama, in a brief appearance in Chicago, said he was "saddened and sobered by the news that came out of the U.S. attorney's office today," RNC Chairman Mike Duncan characterized the comments as "insufficient at best." Duncan, in a prepared statement, said that given Obama's "history of supporting and advising" Blagojevich, he should have said more.
The president-elect also said Tuesday that it would not be appropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation, and that he had not been in contact with the governor or his office. That answer raised some eyebrows in light of an interview that Obama's senior campaign adviser, David Axelrod, gave two weeks ago to the local Fox News affiliate in Chicago. Axelrod told an interviewer then, "I know he's talked to the governor, and there are a whole range of names many of which have surfaced." On Tuesday night, Axelrod issued a statement saying he was mistaken, and that no such discussions had occurred between the president-elect and Blagojevich.
When he announced the charges against Blagojevich, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said Obama was in no way implicated.
Obama advised and endorsed Blagojevich in 2002 and 2006, and his new White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, also advised the governor during his first run. Blagojevich is a former client of Axelrod; the two men worked together prior to Blagojevich's gubernatorial runs.
Both Obama and Blagojevich used Chicago real estate developer Antoin Rezko as a fundraiser. Obama, who also enlisted Rezko's help in a house deal, broke with him after the developer was charged with corruption. He was found guilty earlier this year.
The RNC has been pushing a Democrats-are-corrupt message that now features Blagojevich, as well as just-defeated Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, under indictment on corruption charges, and New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, the subject of a House Ethics Committee investigation.
When asked whether the Blagojevich scandal had the potential to taint Obama in any way going forward, however, presidential historian Robert Dallek, called the question "scurrilous."
"It's a non-issue, so why raise it?" he said. "These things are sui generis. I can't remember any incident where a president-elect was called out because of some former associate."
Appointments to open elective seats are often fraught, says Shannon Stimson, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.
"It's not at all unusual that there be some negotiation within or even among parties," she says. "It suggests the problematic nature in general of democratic politics when it turns to appointments like these."
"But I don't see anything right now that reflects negatively on Obama," Stimson says. "It has more of an effect on the Democratic Party – if there's a special election, it would remove the possibility of a secure Democratic seat." Absolutely secure, anyway: Democrats in recent years have dominated statewide elections, largely because of Republican corruption.
At the end of the day, residents of Illinois should be disgusted, Rollins says, but it appears that the "president-elect was no part of the governor's operation." The "verbiage and conversations" recorded by investigators, he says, "stand for themselves."