Democrats talk tough, then break bread

May 05, 2008|Peter Nicholas and Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writers

INDIANAPOLIS — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday dismissed criticism of her proposed summer gas tax "holiday" as "elite opinion" that reflects the views of economists, not ordinary Americans who drive a long way to work.

"I'm not going to put my lot in with economists," she said on ABC's "This Week" when asked to name a single economist who supported her call for a temporary tax break. "We've got to get out of this mind-set where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans."

Clinton's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama, has called her proposed moratorium on the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal gas tax a "gimmick" designed to win votes in Tuesday's primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.

Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate have said they have no plans before the summer to consider a temporary gas tax suspension. Clinton's proposal, also supported by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has been roundly criticized by economic analysts.

Butting heads on TV

Both Democrats took to the Sunday talk shows to press their case to voters two days before Tuesday's primaries. Polls show the two states split, with Obama leading in North Carolina and Clinton ahead in Indiana.

Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Obama criticized Clinton's threat to "totally obliterate" Iran -- if it were to launch a nuclear attack against Israel -- as sounding like "the cowboy diplomacy, or lack of diplomacy, that we've seen out of George Bush."

"We have had a foreign policy of bluster and saber-rattling and tough talk, and in the meantime have made a series of strategic decisions that actually strengthen Iran," he said.

Clinton defended her remark, saying she was responding to a questioner who had asked about the possibility of Iran launching a nuclear attack on an ally. Such an attack would bring "massive retaliation against Iran," she said. She added that she doesn't believe Iran will launch such an attack, "but I sure want to make it abundantly clear to them that they would face a tremendous cost if they did such a thing."

The host of "This Week," George Stephanopoulos, a former top aide to Clinton's husband, President Clinton, also asked the New York senator about releasing the names of big-money donors to her husband's presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., so that voters could determine whether a potential conflict of interest existed. She said the names would not be released unless she were elected president -- and she seemed to blame her husband for the controversy.

"I don't know any married couples that agree on everything, and we have a disagreement on some of our positions," she said. "If I am so fortunate to be elected president, all of that will be released."

When asked if the names could be released before the election, Clinton said no.

Obama was asked about a controversy of his own -- the incendiary remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

The Illinois senator stepped up his criticism of Wright, but also conceded that he might have disowned the pastor more quickly than he did.

"When you're in national politics, it's always good to pull the Band-Aid off quick and I think that's what the political consultants will tell you," he said. "But life's messy sometimes and, you know, it's not always neat, and things don't proceed in textbook Political 101 fashion."

Obama publicly denounced Wright last week after the pastor repeated comments suggesting, among other things, that the U.S. government was "capable" of inventing the AIDS virus as a genocidal weapon against people of color.

"What really changed was the sense that he was going to double-down on statements he had made before," Obama said. "That indicated to me that he did not share my fundamental belief and my fundamental values in terms of bringing the country together and moving forward, and the pride that I've got for this country."

Obama accused Wright of pouring "gasoline on the fire" by amplifying his views on race and religion. And he said Wright, who is retiring this month from his post at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, reemerged on the national stage because "having the spotlight was something attractive to him."

Playing nice at dinner

Both Obama and Clinton capped the day with speeches Sunday night at a major Democratic Party fundraising dinner in Indianapolis. The audience appeared to be evenly split, with half the room staying silent as Obama spoke, while the other half applauded. Clinton got a similar reaction during her address.

Obama sought to strike a unifying theme, avoiding pointed attacks on his rival.

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