Gloomy news about the economy formed a backdrop for the leading Democratic presidential candidates Monday as they intensified their fight over which one had the best experience to lead the nation.
Senator argued that she would be the most capable steward of the economy and suggested that a rival, Senator , would need “on-the-job training” that the nation could not afford after “eight years of neglect.”
Mr. Obama pushed back swiftly and with humor, minimizing Mrs. Clinton’s experience level by pointing out that being first lady was not akin to being Treasury secretary.
And the third leading candidate in Iowa, of North Carolina, joined the fray. He tweaked Mrs. Clinton’s assertion that she is an agent of change, saying she had not fought hard enough to change lobbying rules or the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq and Iran.
Six weeks remain until the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards were among the Democratic candidates who campaigned across the state Monday, working to win over an unusually large share of undecided voters.
After weeks of sparring about foreign policy, health care and leadership vision, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama turned to the economy as a new proxy for their fight over experience.
Mrs. Clinton, of New York, filled her speech with downbeat economic statistics and warnings about rising heating bills as winter approached. Mr. Obama, of Illinois, zeroed in on ways to lower the costs of attending a community college, which have a strong presence in Iowa.
The two of them, along with Mr. Edwards, are in a near-daily battle to find an issue or message that allows them to break ahead of the Democratic pack in the state.
Mrs. Clinton did not criticize Mr. Obama by name; she rarely does. But aides said she was referring to him when she said that Americans need “a president who understands the magnitude and complexity of the challenges we face.”
“There is one job we can’t afford on-the-job training for — that’s the job of our next president,” Mrs. Clinton said in Knoxville, Iowa. “That could be the costliest job training in history. Every day that’s spent learning the ropes is another day of rising costs, mounting deficits and growing anxiety for our families. And they cannot afford to keep waiting.”
Economic flash point: Social Security
Another economic flash point was Social Security. Mrs. Clinton accused Mr. Obama, Mr. Edwards and other rivals of committing themselves — and, by extension, the — to huge tax increases by pressing for ways to ensure the solvency of the program.
While Mr. Obama has offered specifics, like raising the level of income subject to Social Security taxes, Mrs. Clinton has proposed a bipartisan commission to study the issue and to spare either party the blame for any changes in benefits.
“We don’t need more Republican scare tactics about a Social Security crisis,” Mrs. Clinton said Monday in Iowa, “and we don’t need a trillion dollar tax increase.”
Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards have dismissed suggestions that they are trying to scare the public and have criticized Mrs. Clinton for not explaining how she would shore up the program.
At a news conference before his community college event in Fort Dodge, Mr. Obama was asked to respond to Mrs. Clinton’s comments about how the next president could not afford to receive on-the-job training. Mr. Obama said he was “happy to compare my experiences to hers when it comes to the economy.”
“My understanding was that she wasn’t Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, so I don’t know exactly what experiences she’s claiming,” Mr. Obama said. “I think she’s a capable person. She’s been a senator, like I have. But rather than just assert experience, if she has specific differences with me with respect to economic policy, I’m happy to have those debates.”
Focus on housing, education
Beyond warning about the unsteady state of the economy, Mrs. Clinton also called for doubling the amount of federal housing aid for counseling people who face foreclosures and mortgage crises, and increasing emergency energy assistance to help an additional one million families pay their bills.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, called for creating a $4,000 tax credit for low- and middle-class Americans to attend community colleges, which he said would essentially make the education free. He also said he would simplify the application process for financial aid by replacing complicated forms with a box to check on tax forms.
Mrs. Clinton also criticized the Republican presidential field but not by name.
“In short, they see eight years of Bush economics and say, ‘Why not eight more?’ ” Mrs. Clinton said. “Well, here’s my response to that: You’ve got until Jan. 20, 2009, and not another day more,” referring to Inauguration Day.
The responded by suggesting that Mrs. Clinton supported huge increases in the .
“We are still waiting to hear how much she is going to raise taxes on hard-working families to subsidize over $770 billion in new government spending,” said Danny Diaz, a Republican National Committee spokesman.
Patrick Healy reported from Knoxville, Iowa, and Jeff Zeleny from Fort Dodge, Iowa.