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Sparring Over Gas Tax Continues
Democrats Seek Indiana, N.C. Votes

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.

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.

"Guilt and worry are in a mother's DNA," she said. "I'm a designated worrier in my family about everything. . . . I still worry all the time. My mother said the other day she worries as much about me now. I tell her to turn off the TV, she wouldn't worry so much."

Indiana has turned into the more contested of the two states. Weeks ago, when the Obama campaign drafted its scenario of the likely outcomes in late primaries, officials predicted a seven-point victory. Now they see a tight finish and are working to reverse the momentum Clinton gained from Wright's remarks.

Obama's campaign has tried to cut down on the big rallies that once symbolized the energy behind his campaign but now are seen as sending the message that the candidate is aloof and above the crowds. Instead, he has scheduled appearances where he can mingle with middle-class Hoosiers, with the hope that when voters see him on television, they will see a candidate connecting directly with working people.

For Obama, Indiana's proximity to Illinois is a significant advantage. His advisers see northwest Indiana as an area of particular strength because so many voters there are familiar with him from watching Chicago television.

But that part of the state also includes many working-class voters who have been a core of Clinton's support, and the senator from New York has made repeated appearances in an effort to cut significantly into Obama's expected margins there.

In other ways, Indiana resembles Ohio and Pennsylvania, with the same older, blue-collar population that gave Clinton important victories in those states. Southern Indiana is a more culturally conservative, and both Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton have stumped through rural areas in an effort to pick up support.

North Carolina remains an Obama state, but as the economy has risen in importance, Clinton has begun to make significant inroads.

Her advisers doubt that she can defeat Obama here, but a close finish, particularly if coupled with a victory in Indiana, would give her underdog candidacy another important boost.

Balz, traveling with Clinton, reported from North Carolina.

Obama Wins Guam

Barack Obama defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton in Saturday's Democratic caucuses on Guam by just seven votes, less than 0.2 percent of the total vote.

More than 4,500 Democrats went to the polls, and ballots were counted by hand overnight. Results announced Sunday morning showed that delegates pledged to Obama received 2,264 votes. Clinton's slate got 2,257.

The Western Pacific territory will send four pledged delegates and five superdelegates to the party's national convention.

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