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Sparring Over Gas Tax Continues

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley listens as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks from the back of a pickup truck during a campaign rally in Gastonia, N.C.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley listens as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks from the back of a pickup truck during a campaign rally in Gastonia, N.C. (By Elise Amendola -- Associated Press)
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By Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 4, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS, May 3 -- Sen. Barack Obama sought to shore up support among working-class voters Saturday as he launched a closing drive to secure a pair of primary victories on Tuesday that could end Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's hopes of wresting the Democratic presidential nomination.

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Clinton, campaigning with growing confidence, hopes to capitalize on her victory in Pennsylvania two weeks ago and the rising importance of economic issues to help carry Indiana and hold down the margin of Obama's expected victory in North Carolina. Accomplishing those two things, her advisers believe, will allow her to press her case with superdelegates that she would be a stronger candidate against Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Strategists both inside the campaigns and independent from them described Indiana as too close to call and agreed that Clinton has cut sharply into Obama's once-substantial lead in North Carolina. Underscoring the uncertainty there, both candidates plan to return Monday. Meanwhile, the two campaigns are pouring in additional resources -- Obama will air ads on Chicago TV in the final days, in order to reach voters in Indiana, for example -- and rearranged the candidates' schedules to adjust to what has become an increasingly competitive landscape.

The weakened economy dominated the agenda in both states, with rising gasoline prices as the flash point between Clinton and Obama. Clinton advisers said that increased economic anxiety had given their candidate a boost in both states. The Obama campaign expressed hopes that he has for now put the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his former pastor, behind him, allowing him to shift his focus back to his economic message.

In Indianapolis, Obama portrayed Clinton's proposal for a gas-tax holiday this summer as an example of Washington at its worst, calling it the latest in a long line of "phony ideas, calculated to win elections instead of actually solving problems."

Clinton fired back from the back of a pickup truck in Gastonia, N.C. Spotting a sign in the crowd that said "A gas tax holiday is blatant pandering," Clinton told the audience: "I'll tell you what. I'd rather the oil companies pay the gas taxes than you pay the gas taxes this summer."

Recalling the recent federal bailout of the investment banking firm Bear Stearns, she added: "I didn't hear people talking about it being pandering. I think it's time we didn't just bail out Wall Street. What about bailing out Main Street?"

But Obama pushed back on who understands hard-pressed families better. "Only in Washington can you get away with calling someone out of touch when you're the only one who thinks that 30 cents a day is enough to help people who are struggling in this economy," he said. "Let me tell you what I think: I think the American people are smarter than Washington gives us credit for."

In a two-minute television ad to be aired before the primaries in both states, Obama continues his increasingly sharp debate with Clinton over the gas tax. On Friday, Clinton started airing an ad critical of Obama on the subject.

Obama's remarks were tailored in part to overcome the damage the Wright controversy has inflicted by tying his own biography to the lives of the working-class voters he has struggled to attract in most of the primaries this year.

He recalled his own small-town roots and his work as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side at a time when the closing of a major steel mill disrupted the lives of thousands of families. "Politics didn't lead me to working people," Obama said. "Working people led me to politics."

Departing for a few hours from her focus on the economy, Clinton engaged in a highly personal conversation hosted by the Web site MomLogic. She spoke openly about how she weathered her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky -- although the episode was referred to only obliquely -- as well as the challenges she faced balancing a career and child-raising.


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