As Candidates Focus on Economy, Clinton Defends Gas Tax Plan

By Dan Balz and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 2, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS, May 1 -- With polls showing signs of erosion in his candidacy, Sen. Barack Obama sought Thursday to shift the focus of the Democratic campaign away from the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. and back to the economy and his dispute with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton over her proposal to suspend the federal tax on gasoline.

Clinton stood her ground on the gas tax proposal, which has drawn widespread criticism from economists and some Democratic leaders. The senator from New York said that, even though long-term measures are needed to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, it is essential to demonstrate to hard-pressed consumers that elected leaders recognize the strains they are under now.

"I find it, frankly, a little offensive that people who don't have to worry about filling up their gas tank or what they buy when they go to the supermarket think it's somehow illegitimate to provide relief for . . . millions and millions of Americans," Clinton indignantly told a town hall meeting in Brownsburg, Ind., on Thursday morning.

Her advisers, meanwhile, seized on a series of polls that they said show that Clinton is now a stronger candidate than Obama against Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, in several critical swing states. They said the polls, which include surveys in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, should influence superdelegates and rank-and-file voters considering their choices in the remaining primaries.

Clinton advisers also argued that, while hypothetical general-election polls may shift, the new findings reflect an important change in the campaign, namely that the economy is now a far more important issue than it was at the beginning of the race and is likely to remain so. Clinton, they said, has demonstrated repeatedly that she does better than Obama among voters who cite the economy as the nation's most important issue.

"Yes, polls change," Clinton strategist Geoff Garin told reporters during a conference call. "But what we are seeing in the polls reflect some fundamental things that I think will be crucial to the outcome of the election in November."

Tuesday's primaries in Indiana and North Carolina offer the next tests for Clinton and Obama, with each in need of a strong showing to bolster their candidacies in the hard-fought Democratic nomination battle. Indiana appears to be a very close contest, according to both campaigns and recent public polls. In North Carolina, Obama is favored but could face problems if the Wright controversy continues to play out over the next five days.

The senator from Illinois wrapped up a low-key event at an Indianapolis factory on Wednesday by telling the audience that a victory in Indiana would be decisive. "It starts right here in Indiana," Obama said. "If we win Indiana, we've got this nomination. We will win the general election, then we can roll up our sleeves and start changing the country."

A flurry of new polls indicated that Obama has been damaged over the past month, although they also show that Clinton continues to have vulnerabilities in a general election.

A Pew Research Center survey showed a "modest but consistent decline in Obama's personal image," according to Andrew Kohut, the center's director. Clinton's lead among white voters who did not attend college is now 40 percentage points, up 10 points in a month.

A CBS News-New York Times survey showed declining confidence among Democrats that Obama will be the nominee, although he remains the favorite. That poll also indicated that voters have more doubts about Obama's patriotism than Clinton's or McCain's.

Despite his problems, Obama picked up an important superdelegate endorsement Thursday when Joe Andrew, an Indianan who served as Democratic Party chairman during the Clinton administration and previously backed Clinton for the nomination, announced that he was shifting his support.

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