03/28/2008 02:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Vulnerable Are Obama, Clinton On Earmarks?

Last night's Democrat debate may have been one of the final indicators for how the primary election will play out. But it also provided some telling insight into what a hypothetical general election with Sen. John McCain might look like.

On several occasions, the moderators pressed both Sen. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to address their possible Republican counterpart (not each other) on key policy issues. One exchange that will likely give the Democrat nominee some fits in the future involved earmarks, the federal loot members of Congress try to secure for their districts.

Each candidate has his or her perceived weakness.

CNN's John King, playing off of a recent report from the nonprofit Taxpayers for Common Sense, noted that Obama had structured much of his candidacy on advocating transparency and fiscal responsibility. And while the $91 million in earmarks secure by the Illinois Democrat put him at the lower end of the spectrum, King added, "You have refused to say where the money went."

Obama denied the question's premise: "We've actually disclosed, John, all our earmarks." And he was, to a large extent, correct. Obama has made public all the earmarks he requested in the fiscal year 2008 as well as those he has secured while in office "He goes one step further where he discloses everything he's asked for," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

However, as noted by Ellis, Obama has not released the earmark requests he made to the appropriations committee in 2005 and 2006.

Already, McCain, who rejects earmarks entirely, has blasted Obama on the matter (a bit disingenuously), declaring: "And the senator from Illinois, who says that he wants transparency in government, will not reveal the number of earmarks that he received in 2006 and 2005. Is that transparency in government? I don't think so. I don't think so!"

Clinton, likewise, was challenged during the debate on the earmark issue. As King noted, the New York Democrat was among the Senate's top 10 earmark recipients, securing more than $340 million worth of home-state projects. Would that not leave her vulnerable to McCain?

"Well, no, not at all," she replied. "Because he supported the wasteful tax cuts of the Bush administration and the Iraq war, with the billions of dollars..."

It was a graceful pivot but not one without dangers. For starters, as Obama's camp noted, Clinton also supported the Iraq war. But, in addition, the are questions of transparency: the former first lady has declined to release her earmark requests for any year, or her tax returns, while the list of donors to her husband's foundation remain private.

Thus, while McCain has as recent stories have illuminated, has some money-in-politics issues of his own, it seems all but certain that he will mount a strong challenge on earmarks to both Clinton and Obama. (Nevermind that many earmarks, such as those funding health clinics, education or transportation projects, are extremely popular.)

"In any general election candidates are looking to hype the differences," said Ellis. "And clearly because Sen. McCain doesn't ask for earmarks or take earmarks, he is going to heighten that distinction with the Democrats. And if you look on the campaign trail, his opposition to earmarks is one of his biggest applause lines."