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.

Andrew cited the long Democratic campaign as detrimental to the party's hopes of recapturing the White House in November and said Obama is the likely winner of the nomination. "We need to stop this process now," he said.

Clinton gained superdelegates as well Thursday in what has become a parallel competition to the primaries. Obama has continued to pick up superdelegates despite his recent losses and controversies, and he has narrowed what was once a healthy lead for Clinton. In response, Clinton's advisers have pleaded with superdelegates not to commit until the primaries are over, with the hope that she can show by then that she deserves to be the nominee.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs expressed hope that the worst of the fallout may be over. "We dealt clearly and definitively with Reverend Wright and demonstrated to people where we stand," he said at an Indiana campaign stop. "Right now, we're going to hammer what we've got. He's focusing on the economy."

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who has not endorsed either candidate but has sounded sympathetic toward Obama, accused Wright on Thursday of "some kind of knee-capping operation" against Obama, but he said the candidate would not have picked up key endorsements this week if the controversy had inflicted serious damage.

Everywhere he has gone recently, Obama has made the debate over the gas tax holiday a centerpiece. He considers it an issue that links his approach toward the economy with the core message of his campaign: He is a different kind of politician who will focus, as he likes to say, on what Americans need to hear, not what they want to hear.

Calling the idea of a three-month suspension of the 18.4-cent-a-gallon gas tax a Clinton-McCain proposal, Obama tells audiences that it would mean an extra 30 cents a day in the pockets of an ordinary family, if the oil industry does not raise prices. He said it shows that his opponents care more about winning favor and the election than about solving the country's growing energy woes.

At a rally Wednesday night in Bloomington, Obama's gas tax riff brought a crowd of 12,000 supporters to its feet.

Gibbs said the issue "encapsulates exactly what is wrong with Washington and what is wrong with the other two candidates," adding that it also gives Obama a chance to emphasize "seriousness" and "trust," qualities that voters have said are important in choosing between the Democrats.

But Clinton and her advisers held their ground.

"There's a real gap here in how some people see this from 30,000 feet and how real people in places like North Carolina and Indiana experience it every day, and they really want somebody who will say, 'You know what, we get that you're facing a very difficult economic situation here -- we're going to stand by you,' " Garin said.

Clinton argued that she is striking the right balance with a plan to suspend the federal gasoline tax and offset the cost with a temporary windfall-profits tax on oil companies. "Senator Obama says we shouldn't do it and it's a gimmick, and Senator McCain says we should but we shouldn't pay for it," she said. "I sometimes feel like the Goldilocks of this campaign: Not too much. Not too little. Just right."

In Jeffersonville, Ind., on Thursday afternoon, Clinton reminded her audience that it has been 40 years since the state's primary has counted for anything, and she returned to an old tactic to sway undecided voters. "Who would you hire," she asked, "to turn the economy around? Who would you hire to take on the oil companies? . . . Who would you hire for us to have a universal health-care system? . . . Who would you hire to take care of our veterans, to end the war in Iraq and win the war in Afghanistan?"

Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

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