As the marathon Democratic presidential primary grinds to another potential turning point today, the airwaves in North Carolina and Indiana are loaded with bickering about a federal gas tax holiday.
"He is attacking Hillary's plan to give you a break on gas prices because he doesn't have one," says the latest TV spot for Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"More low road attacks from Hillary Clinton. Now she's pushing a bogus gas tax gimmick. Experts say it'll just boost oil industry profits," intones the narrator for Barack Obama.
In a campaign between two Democrats who seldom disagree much on big issues, the gas tax debate is both ridiculous and refreshing.
It's ridiculous because there's almost no chance a temporary suspension of federal gas taxes is even possible this summer, since none of the Democratic leaders in Congress has signed on to it. And if they did, nobody thinks President Bush would let Clinton's idea to pay for it with a tax on oil company profits become law.
It's refreshing because we could hardly have a better issue than the gas tax debate to encapsulate, in near-caricature form, the different styles of these two formidable candidates.
There's ruthless Clinton, the say-anything, do-anything-to-win candidate, shamelessly pandering while economist after economist slams her (and John McCain) for proposing a federal gas tax hiatus that they say is lousy policy.
And there's Obama, Adlai Stevenson reincarnated, who relates to eggheads in faculty lounges and newspaper editorial boards far better than working stiffs desperate for a little relief at the gas pump.
"Yes, we need a long-term solution. But how about a little relief now?" the former first lady said on MSNBC on Monday, working her hardest to fuel doubts about Obama's ability to win over working-class Americans. "People are pressed. I don't know how you can campaign across America, be in people's living rooms, in their pickup trucks, in union halls and workplaces, like I have, and not really understand in a very visceral way what folks are going through."
Rather than become defensive, Obama has jumped on Clinton's gas tax proposal as just the sort of phony Washington approach he wants to change.
He said on CNN on Monday, "If we're going to deal seriously with gas prices, we're not going to pretend to do something by offering a tax holiday that would at best provide 30 cents a day for three months for a grand total of $28."
Obama has consistently done well with affluent voters. A question that exit polls in Indiana and North Carolina may help answer today is whether voters trying to support a family on $40,000 a year are more attracted to Obama's long-term thinking or Clinton's calls to shave a few pennies off the price of gas.
Democratic pollster Dave Beattie, who is not working for either campaign, said one reason the gas tax holiday is not more popular is because many voters have seen firsthand that such proposals produce little relief at the pump.
"When you do something repeatedly and people don't see a change, they get skeptical,'' said Beattie, who is based in Jacksonville. "In Florida we've had a gas tax holiday, and I bet if you asked the average Floridian if they saved money I don't think they'd remember the gas tax holiday."
A New York Times/CBS poll conducted Thursday through Saturday found 49 percent of voters considered suspending the 18.4-cent federal gas tax over a summer a bad idea, and 45 percent called it a good idea. Seven in 10 said Clinton and John McCain are proposing it mainly to help themselves politically. The poll of 601 registered voters has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.
The gas tax question has become the dominant issue in the closing days of the now-crucial Indiana and North Carolina primaries, and both candidates think it's helping them.
If Obama wins both contests today, Clinton's campaign is effectively over. As it is, the Obama campaign calculates he is only about 275 delegates shy of clinching the nomination with the necessary 2,025 delegates, while Clinton is short by more than 400 delegates. With more uncommitted superdelegates trickling to Obama than to Clinton lately, it's plausible that he could clinch the nomination when Oregon votes on May 20.
But Obama has been dogged by doubts about his electability in recent weeks, and if Clinton wins Indiana and North Carolina — a huge upset — this race could suddenly be wide open.
Little has been predictable in this volatile primary so far, but the most likely outcome today is Clinton winning among Hoosiers, Obama winning among Tar Heels. That would ensure the candidates continue their long, hard slog that may or may not conclude soon after the actual voting ends on June 3, when uncommitted superdelegates would have to finally select a winner.
"I'm in no rush to decide, and I don't think the fact that the primary battle is continuing hurts the party. If anything it may help the country understand the two candidates a little better,'' said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, who is uncommitted and said he would be comfortable letting the race run until late August.
August. By the time Democrats have a nominee, let's hope gas hasn't topped $4 a gallon.
Adam C. Smith can be reached
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