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Obama, Clinton battle over Iran, gas tax holiday

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

In separate interviews on dueling Sunday morning political news shows, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama sparred about the gas tax holiday proposal and foreign policy.

Two days before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries crucial to their presidential fortunes, Obama appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," while Clinton was on ABC's "This Week."

On both broadcasts, the candidates discussed Clinton's proposal for a gas tax holiday this summer, which Obama opposes.

Obama called it a "classic Washington gimmick" that wouldn't solve anything and would save only $28 for each person. Asked by NBC's Tim Russert if the proposal amounted to political pandering, Obama said, "Yes."

Obama talked about his experience with suspending the gas tax in Illinois, saying, "Ivoted for it. Then six months later we took a look and consumers had not benefited at all. I learned from a mistake." He explained that money from the gas tax goes into a federal fund that pays for highway projects such as bridge and road construction and that suspending the tax would eliminate thousands of construction jobs.

Clinton, for her part, said that her proposal meant oil companies would have to pay to make up for the lost gas tax revenues instead of consumers. She disputed Obama's suggestions that she and Republican candidate John McCain were the same since they both support the proposal.

"Senator McCain has said 'take off the gas tax, don't pay for it, throw us further into deficit and debt.' That is not what I've proposed," Clinton said.

Pressed to name an economist who supports such a holiday, Clinton demurred. "I'm not going to put my lot in with economists because I know if we did it right, if we had a president who used all the tools of his presidency, we would decide it in such a way that it would be implemented effectively."

Clinton also used the difference in opinion to buttress her argument that her rival is out of touch with the needs of working-class Americans. Clinton said she trusted her own dialogue with voters. “I have been meeting people across Indiana and North Carolina who drive for a living, who commute long distances, who would save money.... Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans.”

Foreign policy talk
The Democratic hopefuls also discussed Clinton's previous statements on Iran. On April 22, in an ABC interview, Clinton said, "I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran (if it attacks Israel). In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."

On Wednesday, Iran strongly condemned Clinton for her remarks. Iran's deputy U.N. ambassador, Mehdi Danesh-Yazdi, called her comment "provocative, unwarranted and irresponsible" and "a flagrant violation" of the U.N. Charter.

On "This Week," Clinton said she had no regrets about her comment. "Why would I have any regrets? I'm asked a question about what I would do if Iran attacked our ally, a country that many of us have a great deal of connection with and feeling for, for all kinds of reasons. And, yes, we would have massive retaliation against Iran," Clinton said.

"I don't think they will do that, but I sure want to make it abundantly clear to them that they would face a tremendous cost if they did such a thing," she said.

Obama scolded Clinton for her comments, likening her to President Bush.  Obama said: "It's not the language we need right now.... We have had a foreign policy of bluster and saber-rattling and tough talk.... It is important that we use language that signals to the rest of the world that we are shifting from the sort of cowboy diplomacy, or lack of diplomacy, that we’ve seen out of George Bush.”  Obama described the overall U.S. position in the region as "weak," and called for not just focusing on "our issues" but the needs of allied countries as well.

Addressing the Rev. Wright controversy
Obama acknowledged that the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has "distracted" attention from the critical issues such as foreign policy and the economy.

Asked by Russert if Obama thought he could have handled it better, the candidate said, “Well, when you’re in national politics, it’s always good to pull the Band-Aid off quick ... but life is messy sometimes.”

Chastising his former pastor for having "no regard for the moment," Obama expressed disappointment that Wright would use the national platform to nurse his own hurt feelings, saying, "[Reverend Wright chose to] amplify those comments, defend them vigorously, and add to it. He threw gasoline on the fire.... I’m sorry he didn’t see it as an opportunity for him to reflect on the justifiable anger and pain that he had caused.”

He clarified that he never has nor will seek Wright's counsel when it comes to politics, adding, “My commitments are to the values of that church, my commitment is to Christ; it’s not to Reverend Wright.”

High-stakes primary
Both candidates are focusing the bulk of their weekend campaigning on Indiana, where polls show the race extremely close ahead of Tuesday's pivotal primaries. 

The candidates stayed overnight in Indianapolis hotels one block apart, and both were campaigning within miles of each other in Fort Wayne before returning to the capital city for the Indiana Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson Dinner.

North Carolina was also getting some last-minute attention. Both Clinton and Obama shuffled their schedules to dart back to the state on Monday, reflecting the tightening contest there. Polls show Clinton trimming Obama's lead.

A total of 187 delegates are at stake Tuesday in North Carolina and Indiana, but the perception among superdelegates may be more important. An Obama victory in both Indiana and North Carolina could lead to a rush among remaining uncommitted superdelegates to declare their support for the Illinois senator and give him enough to claim the nomination. A split decision or a Clinton victory in both states, on the other hand, could raise doubts in superdelegates’ minds about Obama's electability.

On "Meet the Press," Russert claimed that unconfirmed superdelegates had privately questioned him about Obama’s toughness in the national race for president if he couldn’t properly defend himself against an opponent from his own party. Calling Senator Clinton "the best brand name in Democratic politics" and referring to himself as the underdog, Obama spoke in almost admiring terms of her campaign’s ability to distort his modest beginnings and portray him as an elitist, out-of-touch candidate.

However, he maintained his stance of civil discourse, and sought to highlight his own story as the product of a single mother and hard-working middle-class grandparents living out the American dream. "I would never challenge anyone’s patriotism," he claimed, "and I will not stand by and allow someone to challenge mine."

On ABC, Clinton reaffirmed that she had no intention of dropping out, saying, "When the process finishes in early June, people can look at all the various factors and decide who would be the strongest candidate" to go up against presumptive Republican nominee McCain in the fall.