Democrats spar as key votes near

Obama, Clinton trade accusations on Iran, gas tax

Election 2008

May 05, 2008|By McClatchy-Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton tried mightily yesterday to convince Indiana and North Carolina voters that there are stark differences between the candidates on Iran, gasoline tax freezes and other key issues in the closing days before crucial Democratic presidential primaries in those states.

Clinton painted herself the sensitive champion of the middle class and the candidate of experience. Obama, on the other hand, presented himself as a thoughtful agent of change, someone who would not be lured by what backers deride as sound-bite solutions to complex issues.

Latest polls show Indiana as too close to call, while Obama has a 5- to 9-percentage-point advantage in North Carolina. Obama currently leads in Democratic convention delegates, 1,742.5 to Clinton's 1,607.5, with 2,025 needed to nominate.

The candidates' most vivid clash yesterday involved a two-week-old Clinton comment about how she would react if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons.

"We will attack Iran," she told ABC on April 22. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."

Obama, appearing yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press, struck back with calm outrage. "It's not the language we need right now, and I think it's language reflective of George Bush," he said.

"We have had a policy of bluster and saber-rattling and tough talk," the Illinois senator added, "and in the meantime have made a series of strategic decisions that have actually strengthened Iran."

Clinton, who was appearing at an Indianapolis town hall meeting on ABC's This Week, defended her stance.

"Why would I have any regrets?" the New York senator asked.

"I'm asked a question about what I would do if Iran attacked our ally, a country that many of us have a great deal of, you know, connection with and feeling for, for all kinds of reasons," she said.

"And yes, we would have massive retaliation against Iran," Clinton added, though she said: "I don't think they will do that, but I sure want to make it abundantly clear to them that they would face a tremendous cost if they did such a thing."

Uncertain effect

It was unclear whether any of this would drastically affect tomorrow's outcome.

Ann Siegfried, 59, a retired teacher from Huntington, Ind., watched both shows yesterday.

"I never want to see us get into a war of any kind and to say we'd `obliterate' says to me, `War at any cost,'" said Siegfried, who plans to vote for Obama but also likes Clinton.

But, she said, attitudes toward Iran are not a defining issue for her. Instead, she said, her preference for Obama is a "gut feeling."

Apart from the presidential campaign, Clinton has come under fire in some diplomatic circles for her April remarks.

On Wednesday, Iran's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Mehdi Danesh-Yazdi, called them "provocative, unwarranted and irresponsible," while Lord Malloch-Brown, former U.N. deputy secretary-general, said her suggestion "is not probably prudent."

Tax argument

The talk show skirmish - one that continued as the candidates moved around the state yesterday to campaign - also involved gasoline taxes.

Clinton called her plan to suspend the federal 18.4-cents-per- gallon gasoline tax strong evidence that she's plugged into concerns of the average worker.

Obama dubbed the idea a "classic Washington gimmick" and "a strategy to get through the next election" that consumers would barely notice - a position backed by most major economists and environmentalists.

Clinton's spokesman Howard Wolfson yesterday termed the dispute a "critical distinction" between the two candidates. Clinton, he said, is "someone who understands the pain that middle-class and working-class families are feeling. ... Senator Obama [is] somebody who just doesn't seem to understand middle-class families are hurting and they need relief."

Obama would not relent. "You're looking at suspending a gas tax for three months," he said. "The average driver would save 30 cents per day for a grand total of $28. That's assuming the oil companies don't step in and raise prices by the same amount that the tax has been reduced."

What's needed, Obama said, is a change in the way Washington deals with such crises.

"Let's invest in alternative fuels," he said, "raising fuel efficiency standards on cars, and let's get serious about reducing consumption of oil, which is the only way that over the long term that we're going to reduce gas prices."

Other plans

Clinton maintained that her plan is not the only part of her proposal to reduce this country's dependence on oil.

"I have long-term plans too," she said. "I mean, it's a misnomer to say this is all that I'm doing. It's not."

The Clinton town hall meeting was moderated by George Stephanopoulos. He was a key adviser to Bill Clinton during his presidency, but Stephanopoulos' relationship with the couple cooled for years after he wrote a book critical of the Clinton presidency.

Obama was interviewed in an Indianapolis television studio. His biggest political hurdle became evident quickly, as Meet the Press host Tim Russert spent about 25 minutes quizzing him about the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the controversial pastor who guided Obama's church. Obama has distanced himself from Wright, but many voters have expressed serious concern about the relationship.

Obama was emphatic yesterday about Wright. "My commitment is to Christ. It's not to Reverend Wright," he said.

Would you seek his counsel? Russert asked. "Absolutely not," Obama replied.

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