NEW YORK — Democrat Hillary Clinton denied knowing Tony Rezko, an indicted Chicago businessman, on Friday after being told of a photograph that shows a smiling Clinton and her husband standing next to the man she called a "slum landlord" earlier this week.
"I don't know the man. I wouldn't know him if he walked in the door. I don't have a 17-year relationship with him," Clinton said, referring to her charge that Barack Obama, a rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, has a longstanding relationship with Rezko.
"There's a big difference between standing somewhere taking a picture with someone you don't know and haven't seen since," Clinton told NBC's TODAY show, "and having a relationship that the newspapers in Chicago have been exploring."
Clinton made a point of raising Obama's connection to Rezko during Monday's Democratic debate. In a heated exchange over who did or did not support Republican policies, Clinton said she had been challenging Republican ideas "when you (Obama) were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago."
Obama denied Clinton's accusation, saying that he was an associate at a law firm that represented a church group that had partnered with Rezko on a project. "I did about five hours worth of work on this joint project," he said.
His campaign has said it is giving to charities more than $40,000 from donors linked to Rezko. In 2006, when charges against Rezko were made public, Obama gave $11,500 in Rezko contributions to charities.
A Chicago real estate developer and fast-food magnate, Antoin "Tony" Rezko was a longtime fundraiser for Obama. Prosecutors have charged him with fraud, attempted extortion and money laundering in what they allege was a scheme to get campaign money and payoffs from firms seeking to do business before two state boards.
Obama said this week that going negative was all part of Clinton's strategy.
"Senator Clinton announced while we were still in Iowa that this was going to be her strategy and called it the fun part of campaigning. And, you know, I don't think it's the fun part to fudge the truth," he said. "The necessary part of this campaign is to make sure that we're getting accurate information to voters about people's respective records."
Clinton said she'd rather keep the race for the Democratic presidential nomination focused on their differences on public policy issues.
"I try not to attack first, but I have to defend myself. I do have to counterpunch," Clinton told TODAY.
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"I took a lot of incoming fire for many, many months and I was happy to absorb it because obviously, you know, I felt that was part of my responsibility. But toward the end of a campaign you have to set the record straight," the New York senator and former first lady said.
Clinton, Obama and their campaigns have exchanged increasingly hard-hitting jabs in recent days over race, her vote on the Iraq war, and other issues.
"It is perfectly legitimate to draw comparisons and contrasts," Clinton said. "And I think both Senator Obama and I have made it clear we do want to focus on what we each would do for our country. It has been obviously an incredibly intense campaign. ... But I do want to make it clear that our campaigns have to stay focused on what you know the legitimate differences are so that we can give voters information that will enable them to make the right decision."
As for the photo with her and Rezko, Clinton said she it's just one of many photos she's been in over the years and that she knows nothing about this one in particular.
"No I don't," she told TODAY. "I probably have taken hundreds of thousands of pictures."
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