Sweet column: Tony Rezko in the spotlight.

SHARE Sweet column: Tony Rezko in the spotlight.

COLUMBIA, S.C.Once Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton uttered the name Rezko at a Democratic presidential debate last Monday, she moved to center stage and shined a spotlight on Tony Rezko, facing a Feb. 25 trial on federal corruption charges.

Sen. Barack Obamas long relationship with Rezko is a major political problem for him in the primary, and in the general election if he wins the nomination.

Until the debate, Rezkos complicated ties with Obama mainly were contained in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, with the national press only occasionally visiting the story of a career patron of Obama who raised money for his state and U.S. Senate campaigns.

Rezko debuted as a troublesome factor for Obama in 2006, after his wife bought a parcel of land next to a house the Obamas were purchasing on the same day. Several things happened recently to highlight Obamas links with Rezko, which date back to Obamas days as a Harvard Law student who got a call from the Chicago businessman offering him a job.

Obama turned him down, but they continued a friendship that ended after the house deal and as the federal investigations of Rezko heated up.

Clinton herself elevated Rezkos status as a factor when, during the debate, she called out Obama for representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago. That was a reference to a Sun-Times story about Rezkos real estate deals where Obama handled about five hours of legal chores.

The timing was bad for Obama because Clintons willingness to make Rezko an issue triggered major follow-up stories by several national print and television outlets just before Saturdays South Carolina primary and the Feb. 5 primary and caucus votes taking place in 22 states.

With more attention to Rezko, a photo of Rezko and Obama the first time the two were pictured together was leaked to the Washington-based Politico.com. Raising the ante, a picture of Rezko, flanked by Bill and Hillary Clinton was leaked to NBC just before Hillary Clinton was interviewed on the Today show Friday morning.

Today host Matt Lauer asked, Do you know anything about the picture? Do you know when it was taken? Do you remember meeting this man? Clinton said, No, I dont. You know, I probably have taken hundreds of thousands of pictures.

Clinton was not told during the interview where the picture came from, but the Sun-Times has learned it was likely taken during an event connected to the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

In a statement, the Clinton campaign said, Today, NBC aired an undated photo of Hillary and Bill Clinton taken with Tony Rezko and tried to compare that picture to Sen. Obama’s 17-year relationship with the indicted influence peddler. Over the course of her career, Hillary has probably taken tens of thousands of photos. Here are some facts you should know: Tony Rezko has never contributed a dime to Hillary or Bill Clinton. They have no relationship with Tony Rezko.

Obama has never agreed to an interview about Rezko, but after Clinton injected the name into the campaign on Monday, on Wednesday, ABCs Good Morning Americas Diane Sawyer asked Obama about Rezko. Obama made it seem like he hardly knew Rezko who was a friend, a client and a fund-raiser and was clueless about Rezkos potential criminal legal problems that had been reported by the Chicago press.

This is somebody who was active in politics in Illinois, who I knew. Nobody had any indications that he was engaging in wrongdoing. At the point where he was engaging in alleged wrongdoing, it had nothing to do with me, and nobody has made that allegation. And Senator Clinton knows that, Obama said.

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