GRAHAM, N.C. — Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Barack Obama on Monday for opposing proposals to suspend federal gas taxes this summer, a plan she and Republican John McCain have endorsed. Obama didn't take the bait. He ignored Clinton and focused on McCain.
"My opponent, Senator Obama, opposes giving consumers a break from the gas tax," Clinton said at a firehouse. "I understand the American people need some relief," she added, implying that Obama doesn't get it.
Obama has said motorists would not benefit significantly from suspending the gas tax.
"This is his solution to the problems of the energy crisis and your gas bills," Obama told several thousand at a noisy rally in Wilmington. "Keep in mind that the federal gas tax is about 5 percent of your gas bill. If it lasts for three months, you're going to save about $25 or $30, or a half a tank of gas."
The idea to suspend the 18.4 cent federal gas tax and 24.4 cent diesel tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day was first proposed by McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, as a way to lessen the pain at the pump for consumers this summer.
Clinton said she would make up the lost revenue by imposing a "windfall profits tax" on oil companies.
"If we suspended it and made up the lost revenues, that's the best of both worlds," she said.
N.C. endorsement for Clinton
Clinton also picked up a prized endorsement. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, one of the superdelegates who are likely to choose the party's presidential nominee, was expected to announce his support for the former first lady on Tuesday. Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe told supporters about the endorsement Monday at a fundraiser in Charlotte.
Both Democrats canvassed the state Monday, pushing supporters to go to the polls early here and in Indiana before both states hold primaries on May 6. Obama is favored in North Carolina while the two are competing closely in Indiana.
"That's his big solution," Obama said of McCain. "He had the gall yesterday to tell me that because I don't agree with his plan, I must not be sympathetic to poor people. This is at the same time as he is proposing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for corporate interests, for the wealthiest Americans."
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds noted Obama's support for suspending gas taxes when he served in the Illinois Senate.
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"Senator Obama's arguments against John McCain's gas tax holiday are complete fiction," Bounds said.
Leading in convention delegates and popular votes, Obama sought to avoid the daily back and forth with Clinton. Before leaving Wilmington, he was asked about his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who said Monday that criticism of some of his fiery sermons is an attack on the black church. Wright's third public appearance in four days kept alive a story that continues to dog Obama's campaign.
Obama said the voters he talks to don't ask him about Wright. "It's not what I hear. What I'm hearing is concern about gas prices. People are concerned about their jobs being shipped overseas," he said.
Obama urges early voting
At the rally, Obama said McCain's approach to the issue of high gas prices was typical of how Washington works.
"There's a problem, everybody's upset about gas prices. Let's find some short-term, quick-fix so we can say we did something, even though we didn't do anything," Obama said. He argued that reducing consumption and increasing the use of alternative fuels represent real long-term solutions to rising gasoline and diesel fuel prices.
Besides urging supporters to vote early, Clinton spent part of the day raising money. She and daughter Chelsea were to appear at a closed-door fundraiser in Greensboro, with two more fundraisers scheduled later in Charlotte.
Obama capped his day at the University of North Carolina's basketball arena, which was filled with about 15,000 cheering people he sought to energize to cast early ballots through Saturday. He presented himself as a longshot candidate who had bet that voters would give a little-known candidate a chance to make his case.
"My bet has paid off. My faith in the American people has been vindicated," he said.
In Washington, Democratic Party chief Howard Dean said either Clinton or Obama will know when it's time to drop out of the race for the nomination after the primaries end in early June.
Dean, saying he was speaking from experience as a candidate for president in 2000, said he won't have to force anyone out.
"Either of these candidates, if it's time for them to go, they'll know it and they will go," Dean said on "Good Morning America" on ABC. "They don't need any pushing from me. You know when to get in and you know when to get out. That's just part of the deal."
Dean also said superdelegates shouldn't wait until August to decide which candidate to support. Superdelegates are the nearly 800 elected and party officials who attend the convention and can vote for any candidate.
"We really can't have a divided convention. If we do, it's going to be very hard to heal the party afterwards," Dean said. "So we'll know who the nominee is and that'll give us an extra 2 1/2 months to get our party together, heal the wounds of having a very closely divided race and take on Senator McCain."
Asked about Dean's comments, Clinton said the extended nomination fight has been good for the party because voters are registering as Democrats in large numbers.
"So we're going to go through these next contests, we're going to see where we end up and we'll take stock of where we are after they finish," Clinton said. She said the disputes over the Florida and Michigan primaries also must be resolved.
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