By Perry Bacon Jr. and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 5, 2008
SOUTH BEND, Ind., May 4 -- Two days before critical primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) scolded both Sen. Barack Obama (D) and "elite opinion" Sunday for opposing her proposals to fix the ailing economy, while the senator from Illinois accused her of political pandering.
"There's a big difference between us, and the question is: Who understands what you're going through, and who do you count on being on your side?" Clinton said to several hundred supporters in Fort Wayne. "I believe I have what it takes to stand up and fight for you when you need a president on your side."
Obama appeared to acknowledge that Clinton's populist economic message is finding a receptive audience in Indiana when he called for a second round of government tax rebates. "Let me tell you something, people are really hurting," Obama said during his own appearance in Fort Wayne. "I am here to tell you, you're not on your own. We're in this together."
The two scoured the state before a primary that Obama last month called the "tiebreaker" in the Democratic contest. He is hoping that victories here and in North Carolina would build pressure on Clinton to exit the race for the party's nomination, and both candidates are betting that their rhetoric on the economy -- Obama insisting voters will reject easy answers, Clinton with her proposals for short-term relief -- will give them an edge Tuesday.
The candidates taped appearances on competing Sunday-morning talk shows from Indianapolis, campaigned in Fort Wayne, stopped in towns across the state (Clinton in South Bend, Obama in Elkhart) and returned late in the day to Indianapolis, where they again sparred over gasoline taxes in consecutive speeches at a state Democratic Party dinner.
Sunday was their last full day of campaigning here before Tuesday's vote. Clinton will make two stops on Monday in North Carolina, and Obama has three appearances scheduled. Obama has led by double digits in North Carolina polls for weeks.
In their television appearances, Obama continued to face tough questions about his controversial former pastor, and Clinton was criticized for her aggressive stance toward Iran. But both also renewed their debate over Clinton's proposal to suspend the federal gasoline tax for the summer months.
Obama said his previous support of suspending the gas tax in Illinois, when he was a state senator, was a "mistake." He derided Clinton's plan on NBC's "Meet the Press," calling it "a political response to a serious problem that we neglected for decades."
His campaign launched a new television ad labeling the idea a "bogus gas tax gimmick."
Obama said his proposal for a tax cut for the middle class, as part of an economic stimulus package, would be more effective than Clinton's gas tax suspension.
"Look, people do need serious relief," he said. "They are getting hammered. I mean -- people who can't go on job searches because they can't fill up their gas tank. And so, what I've said is, let's accelerate the second half of a tax stimulus proposal that I have put forward that would put, immediately, hundreds of dollars into people's pockets to get through the summer."
Clinton has her own tax-cut proposals that benefit the middle class, but she said the gas tax holiday would be an important short-term measure.
In ignoring a question about whether any prominent economist embraces the gas tax holiday, Clinton defended her proposal and attacked "this mind-set where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans."
"I'm not going to put my lot in with economists," Clinton said in a town hall meeting organized by ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." "When the federal government, through the Fed and Treasury, gave $30 billion in a bailout to Bear Stearns, I didn't hear anybody jump in and say, 'That's not going according to the market, that's rewarding irresponsible behavior.' "
The former first lady was combative in her TV appearance, putting host Stephanopoulos on the defensive by suggesting that he, like her, was a private opponent of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement in the Bill Clinton White House.
"Now, you remember this, because George did work in that '92 campaign, and George and I actually were against NAFTA," Clinton said, referring to Stephanopoulos's work as a senior adviser to Bill Clinton. "I'm talking about him in his previous life, before he was an objective journalist and didn't have opinions about such matters."
Focusing on the economy in their talk show appearances, Clinton and Obama played down the controversial comments of the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the former pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, which Obama attends. Clinton, when asked about Wright at the town hall meeting, said that "we should definitely move on" from the issue.
Obama, meanwhile, said that he would "absolutely not" seek Wright's counsel if he were elected president.
Despite the stakes and the toll of the long campaign, both candidates appeared in good spirits.
"I've been talking all the time; can I get a throat lozenge?" Clinton said in South Bend as she began coughing and briefly lost her voice. "Glass of water," she shouted.
"See, that's why we need universal health care," she said to laughter. She cut her standard stump speech down to about 20 minutes.
Obama played basketball in Elkhart, joking that he was a "pressure player" as he knocked down several shots, although he lost the game to a local 14-year-old.
Over the weekend, Obama showed up at picnic sites, playgrounds and roller-skating rinks across Indiana with his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha. The girls had not appeared on the campaign trail since before January's Iowa caucuses. Obama even visited a house in Noblesville that his mother's family had owned for generations before moving to Kansas.
Obama was not reaching his usual crowds of thousands in the small-scale events, but campaign advisers were betting that the images would resonate more effectively with Indiana voters by showing Obama as down-to-earth and in touch with ordinary Hoosier life. He kept his prepared remarks short, focused on his critique of Clinton's proposed gas tax holiday and offered a hefty dose of personal detail, including how his grandfather had gone to college on the GI Bill and how his mother had collected food stamps.
The Clinton campaign sought to introduce a new issue into the campaign in its late stages. A mailer criticized his stance on the Second Amendment and said: "Where does Barack Obama really stand on guns? Depends on who Barack Obama is talking to." The flier invoked his controversial comments during a closed fundraiser that working-class voters "cling" to guns and religion because they believe that the government has let them down.