As they traveled across Indiana and North Carolina over the past few days, trading charges and countercharges about the wisdom of suspending the federal gas tax for the summer, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were really having a larger fight.
They were arguing over who had better economic instincts.
For all the similarities between the two Democrats, there is also a core thematic difference between them. Clinton tends to favor narrowly focused programs, like the gas-tax holiday, that speak to specific voter concerns. By suspending the tax and replacing it with a new tax on oil companies, Clinton said at a rally in Hendersonville, N.C., on Friday, she was standing with "hard-pressed Americans who are trying to pay their gas bills."
Obama, on the other hand, leans toward broader programs meant to help nearly all middle- and low-income families. At a steel factory in Northwest Indiana on Friday, Obama called the tax holiday a "gimmick" and said he instead favored a cut in the payroll tax, which finances Social Security, of up to $1,000 for middle-class households "to offset the costs not only of gas, but also of food."
The dueling instincts do not explain all the differences between them. They also disagree about a health insurance mandate (Clinton favors one) and the capital-gains tax (Obama has indicated he would raise it more than Clinton would). Obama is open to increasing the amount of income subject to the Social Security payroll tax; Clinton has been critical of that idea.
But their contrasting approaches do extend to a range of issues, including the current economic slowdown, the mortgage crisis and retirement savings. The contrast has been present since before the primaries began -- when Obama announced his middle-class tax cut, for example, and when Clinton took out a whimsical television advertisement in which she was labeling Christmas gifts as if each were a specific policy proposal.
The Clinton and Obama approaches still have many more similarities than differences. Whether through focused tax breaks or sweeping ones, both candidates would reduce taxes on middle-class households and raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year.
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, by contrast, would make permanent nearly all of the Bush tax cuts, including those on high earners.
ONE MORE FOR OBAMA: In South Carolina, Democrats attending their state convention Saturday elected a supporter of Obama to an open superdelegate slot.
The election before a crowd of about 2,000 came as some complained that Obama and Clinton were trying to win delegates pledged to native son John Edwards. The former North Carolina senator has not released his delegates nor given his support to one of the remaining candidates.
SHOWDOWN IN GUAM: Obama defeated Clinton in Saturday's Democratic caucuses on Guam by just seven votes.
More than 4,500 island Democrats voted. Neither candidate campaigned on the island in person. Results of the all-night count completed this morning, Guam time, show delegates pledged to Obama with 2,264 votes to 2,257 for Clinton's slate. That means they'll split the pledged delegate votes. Obama's slate won in 14 of 21 districts.
The territory sends four pledged delegates and five superdelegates to the national convention in August in Denver, although U.S. citizens on the island have no vote in the November election.
Voters picked two of the superdelegates, electing uncommitted Pilar Lujan party chairman and Jaime Paulina vice chairman. Paulina ran as an Obama supporter.
THE IRAN QUANDARY: Clinton has ratcheted up her rhetoric against Iran, pledging recently to extend U.S. nuclear protection to friendly Arab nations against Iran's nuclear ambitions and asserting that if Tehran considers attacking Israel, "we would be able to totally obliterate them."
The Iranian government lashed out last week in response, with an Iranian diplomat at the United Nations condemning Clinton's statement as "provocative, unwarranted and irresponsible."
In a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Iran's deputy U.N. ambassador, Mehdi Danesh-Yazdi, also referred to Clinton's threat as a "flagrant violation" of the U.N. Charter. Clinton's campaign dismissed the letter.
The exchange underscores Clinton's apparent effort to distinguish herself from her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama, by offering a more hawkish approach to world affairs. Few foreign policy issues have divided the candidates more than how to deal with Iran. Obama has offered to hold direct talks to halt Iran's nuclear program. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has cast doubt on the value of such negotiations, and Clinton falls somewhere between the two.
(THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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