Democratic hopefuls duke it out over gas tax in Ind., N.C. contests

Polls show Obama the favorite in the tight North Carolina race and Clinton ahead in Indiana’s primary.

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Dueling over gas prices, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama strained for every last vote on Monday, the eve of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries that are the biggest prizes left in their epic Democratic nomination fight.

Her TV ads promoted her plan for a summer-long gas-tax holiday and contended she was the candidate who “gets it.” He said the plan was just another Washington stunt.

A combined 187 delegates are at stake in the two states, nearly half of the pledged delegates left with eight primaries to go before voting ends in a month. North Carolina has 115 pledged delegates at stake; Indiana has 72.

Obama was the favorite in North Carolina, but both candidates campaigned vigorously there with polls showing a tightening race since Clinton’s win in Pennsylvania two weeks ago. Indiana was considered tighter, with most polls in the final days showing Clinton taking the lead.

Obama hurried back and forth between the two states, pleading for votes. He is hoping to gain support from a group that has not greeted his candidacy enthusiastically — white, mostly male construction and factory workers.

Clinton, also campaigning in North Carolina, campaigned for blue-collar votes, too, talking about the hard times the country faces.

“It’s time to quit wringing our hands and start rolling up our sleeves,” she said.

Pain at the gas pump has become a big issue in the long campaign that started out focusing on the Iraq war.

Oil futures reached a record of more than $120 a barrel Monday, raising concerns about even higher prices for gasoline. In a new 30-second ad featuring drivers complaining about the price of filling up, Clinton touted her plan to cut gas taxes over the summer and said Obama was just attacking her idea “because he doesn’t have one.”

“Barack Obama wants you to keep paying, $8 billion in all,” an announcer says. “Hillary is the one who gets it.”

Obama responded with his own spot that said Clinton was offering “more of the same old negative politics.” It points out a New York Times editorial that said she’s taking “the low road” and that her criticism does “nothing but harm.”

The ad didn’t point out that the same editorial said Obama is contributing to the negative nature of the campaign by “increasingly rising to Mrs. Clinton’s bait, undercutting his own claims that he is offering a higher, more inclusive form of politics.”

Obama said the proposal to suspend the 18.4 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and the 24.4-cent diesel tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day would provide little in actual savings to motorists. He said oil companies would quickly raise prices to make up the difference.

“It’s a stunt. It’s what Washington does,” Obama said in Evansville, Ind.

A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. poll released Monday found six in 10 saying gas prices have caused financial hardship for their families..

North Carolina and Indiana are important because they are the largest states left to vote, but they cannot mathematically settle the nomination. A candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win, and Obama had 1,745.5 to Clinton’s 1,608 Monday.

Obama continued to close Clinton’s long-held lead among superdelegates, those party leaders who aren’t bound by the outcome of state contests. He picked up two from Maryland on Monday, leaving him trailing Clinton 269-255.

Clinton’s main hope for winning the nomination is to persuade most of the roughly 220 superdelegates still undecided to disregard Obama’s lead in the delegate chase and support her instead. The Clinton campaign also hopes to get a boost by getting delegates from Michigan and Florida seated. The Democratic National Committee disqualified those delegates last year because the two states held their primaries too early. Clinton won both contests after all the candidates pledged to boycott the campaigns.

Tom Hanks has taken to his page to pledge his support for Obama, who is competing to be the first black president.

Other celebrities endorsing Obama are Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Springsteen and Scarlett Johansson.

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