CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, sold their economic visions on Monday amid new signs that Clinton is opening a small lead in Iowa, a key early voting state.
Speaking in Iowa before a banner titled "Rebuilding the Road to the Middle Class," Clinton looked past her Democratic rivals to focus her rhetoric on Republicans.
Declaring "this economy just isn't working for middle-class Americans anymore," she delivered an old-fashioned populist slam of the Bush administration's fiscal and social policies, saying they've accelerated job losses, increased income inequality and hurt the housing market.
Campaigning in Portsmouth, N.H., Obama rolled out an ambitious energy plan aimed at curbing greenhouse gases and reducing dependence on foreign oil. His campaign billed the plan as "visionary," although some planks resemble proposals that Clinton introduced earlier.
In his speech, Obama criticized Clinton but didn't mention her name. He bragged that in his first term as a senator, he's co-sponsored legislation mandating better fuel economy. He indirectly criticized Clinton for not pushing alternative energy policies more aggressively.
"I know that change makes for good campaign rhetoric, but when these same people had the chance to actually make change happen, they didn't lead," Obama said. "When they had the chance to stand up and require automakers to raise their fuel standards, they refused. When they had multiple chances to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by investing in renewable fuels that we can literally grow right here in America, they said no."
Later, in impromptu remarks to reporters, Obama invoked Clinton's name: "Senator Clinton is part of this," he said. "If you have rejected increased fuel efficiency standards on cars consistently until the year you're running for president, then voters shouldn't have a lot of confidence that you're serious about getting it done."
Obama joined Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in favoring a cap-and-trade program to curb global warming. They would set a cap on total carbon emissions, then set corporate pollution allowances within that cap. Companies could buy other firms' unused quotas to pollute more. All three Democrats call for reducing carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
But Obama's plan goes farther than his rivals: He would make oil, coal and gas companies pay for all of their emissions quotas. "Businesses don't own the sky, the public does," he said. "And if we want them to stop polluting it, we have to put a price on all pollution."
Obama also proposed to spend $150 billion over 10 years on energy research and job creation. Clinton has proposed spending $50 billion on a Strategic Energy Fund, which includes alternative energy research. And Obama set a goal of reducing U.S. oil consumption by at least 35 percent by 2030.
He compared his plan to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wartime production oversight and John F. Kennedy's moon program.
"I will set big goals for this country as president, some so large that the technology to reach them does not yet exist. But that has not stopped us before," Obama said.
Clinton positioned herself Monday much as her husband, Bill, did in his successful 1992 race — as the champion of a beleaguered middle class.
"Their economic philosophy boils down to this: In the new global economy, according to Republicans, America can't win unless most Americans lose ...middle-class families always end up drawing the short straw," Clinton said.
She even questioned a major legacy of her husband's administration, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"NAFTA has some serious shortcomings," Clinton said, citing problems her New York constituents have had in exporting products to Canada. "It's time we assess trade agreements every five years to make sure they're meeting their goals and make adjustments if they're not. I think it's time to do that with NAFTA."
The Clinton administration's embrace of free trade caused a rift with organized labor, a key bloc in Democratic primaries, especially eastern Iowa, which has seen its manufacturing base erode over the past decade.
Clinton didn't unveil any major new initiatives in her speech, which generally sounded time-tested Democratic themes, such as a promise to "stand up for Social Security." Instead, she reiterated proposals she'd made earlier — investments in alternative energy research, rolling back tax cuts for Americans earning more than $250,000 a year, reforming the alternative minimum tax — and put them in the context of helping middle-class workers.
Clinton is showing new strength in Iowa, where Democratic voters will cast their party's first votes for president at caucuses in January. A Sunday Des Moines Register poll of 399 likely Democratic caucus-goers gave Clinton 29 percent, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards 23 percent and Obama 22 percent. The margin of error was 4.9 percentage points.
The last Register poll, in May, had Edwards ahead with 29 percent, Obama second with 23 percent and Clinton third with 21 percent.
Averaging four recent Iowa polls taken since late September, Clinton leads with 26.8 percent, Obama is second with 23.8 percent and Edwards is third with 21.5 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
ON THE WEB
For more on Obama's energy proposals, go to www.barackobama.com and search under Issues.
For more on Clinton's economic proposals, go to www.hillaryclinton.com and search under Issues.