Jan. 25, 2008 -- An undated photo of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and her husband posing with Chicago landlord, and former Obama fundraiser Tony Rezko, raised eyebrows today. But will the photo blunt the effectiveness of one of Clinton's most recent attack points against rival Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.?
The photo, which first appeared on the Drudge Report, and was carried by several media outlets, shows Rezko — who awaits trial next month on federal corruption charges — flanked by the Clintons. The date, the context and the source of the photo are unclear.
In the Democratic debate, earlier this week in South Carolina, Clinton called out Obama for taking part, while he was an Illinois state senator, in a land deal with the man she described as a "slum landlord."
Although Obama has severed ties with the businessman, Rezko's trial, on charges of attempted extortion and money laundering, starts next month, just as the primary season heats up.
Asked about the photo on NBC's "Today" show, Clinton said, "I probably have taken hundreds of thousands of pictures. I don't know the man. I wouldn't know him if he walked in the door."
She explained that she didn't feel the photo undermined her criticism of Obama over his relationship with Rezko.
"You have to look at the record and the facts. There's a big difference between standing somewhere, taking a picture with someone you don't know and haven't seen since, and having a relationship that the newspapers in Chicago are exploring."
But will it change campaign strategy in the increasingly acrimonious Democratic primary fight?
By Friday afternoon, it did not appear the photo had caused the Clinton campaign to back off the issue. The Clinton campaign press office alerted reporters to a story about the Obama campaign and Rezko's money.
But one political scientist says he thinks the photo will have further impact.
"Not only does it kill the Rezko issue, but it opens the door for the best remaining shot that Obama has, which is to rekindle Clinton fatigue, and remind voters of all those controversies from the 90s involving the Clintons," argued Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Sabato was surprised that the Clinton campaign, known for its thorough and efficient campaign machine, seemed caught by surprise by the appearance of this photo.
"If you're going to attack your opponent for associating with a slumlord, you better make darn sure that you, yourself, have not associated with that slumlord," said Sabato. "Her campaign has so many hundreds of staffers, and not one of them did some research to check into her and Rezko?"
One longtime political consultant, Don Rose, argues the photograph will make it almost impossible for Clinton to attack Obama again on the Rezko issue.
"It will be pretty hard to start complaining about Rezko when this photo exists," he said. "I suspect it will stop her from raising the issue."
But other campaign observers predict that the revelation of the photo may temporarily put the Clinton campaign on defense, but will not stop criticism of Obama for his ties to Rezko.
"The Clintons like to win, and they tend to use brass knuckles when they're in trouble," said political consultant Joseph Mercurio. "When you look at the poll in South Carolina, Obama had really spiked just before they started bringing out these attacks. So, it obviously works for them, to some extent."
If anything, the photograph could serve to ratchet up the war of words, said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York City.
"You know that old maxim, 'People in glass houses shouldn't throw rocks.' Well, the Clintons have been throwing boulders," said Muzzio. "And now, they've got a hole in their house. Now, they have to explain how this guy got in the picture with them. The camera's back on them. The way to come back is to escalate it, and that's what they will do. This is a heavyweight bout, and one of them's got to win."
The mystery remains over when the photo was taken and the context of Rezko's appearance with the Clintons.
Rose said, given the staging of the image, it looks like the kind of photograph often taken at a political fundraiser, where hundreds of donors can be shuffled through to pose with a politician in return for their generosity.
"It's not one of these friendly photographs where he's got his arm around Bill or Hillary," said Rose. "It's relatively innocuous, in that it took place at some event, probably a fundraiser."
The Clinton campaign has declined further comment, beyond the senator's comments this morning. The Obama campaign has also declined comment.
Rezko's lawyer, Joseph Duffy, did not return several calls for comment.
Although Rezko gave $15,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 2000, he does not appear to have ever contributed to either President Clinton or Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Also, judging by hair and clothing styles, the photo appears to be dated from the mid-1990s. In a photograph of Clinton from 1995, her hairstyle appears almost identical to the photograph with Rezko.
Rezko has also donated money to Republicans, such as President Bush as well as Democrats on the state and federal level, according to campaign contribution records.
"He gave money to so many politicians," said Rose. "He knew that you give money to politicians to accomplish something you want to get done."