SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton touted opposing views Thursday on whether to suspend the federal gas tax this summer, as controversy about Obama's former pastor finally took a backseat to pocketbook issues.
In addition, with key contests in Indiana and North Carolina just five days away, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and party super delegate switched his endorsement from Clinton to Obama. Joe Andrew said he concluded that staying with Clinton would only delay the nomination and help Republican John McCain.
But new polling showed that Clinton has effectively erased Obama's lead nationally, and that Obama's unfavorable ratings had climbed in recent weeks - even as the prolonged Democratic contest also damaged Clinton's image.
A survey of Democratic voters released Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showed Obama's lead over Clinton at a bare 47 percent to 45 percent, down from 49 to 39 a month ago. The survey was conducted April 23-27, just prior to Rev. Jeremiah Wright's racially divisive comments Monday at the National Press Club, and Obama's denunciation of Wright the day after.
Obama and Clinton, both campaigning Thursday in Indiana, talked about the challenges of paying for health care and their commitment to ending the war, and told family stories.
But the gas-tax issue gave the rivals the easiest way to differentiate themselves and seek political advantage.
Clinton favors suspending the gasoline tax this summer. She'd tax oil companies to make up the lost revenue. That allows her to position herself as an advocate of the working class who can stake out a middle ground between Obama, who opposes a tax suspension as a feeble gesture likely to fail, and McCain, who favors one without the offsetting tax.
"I sometimes feel like the Goldilocks of this campaign - not too much, not too little, but just right," she told voters in Brownsburg. "When you go to the gas pump, when you go to the supermarket, you want a president who has a feel for the economy."
Taking a dig at Obama, who's a millionaire but worth far less than the Clintons, the former first lady said it is a "little offensive" to hear her idea slammed by "people who don't have to fill their gas tank."
Obama argued that a gas-tax suspension is a gimmick that distracts from the need to conserve. Most economists agree. That position let Obama move beyond the subject of Wright, which has dogged him anew for days, while building his campaign theme of rejecting typical Washington solutions that don't solve long-term problems.
Obama compared the gas-tax suspension to the Medicare prescription drug plan or the "Mission Accomplished" slogan after the invasion of Iraq five years ago.
"For us to pretend we're solving the problem by giving people 30 cents a day" in estimated cost savings, "that's it? That's our plan?" he asked a group of senior citizens in Columbia City. "I guess Senator Clinton thought it was going to poll well."
Asked if the Clinton plan would increase consumption, contradicting her stand in favor of boosting fuel conservation, Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said flatly, "no." Most economists say it would boost gasoline consumption.
"People are hurting at the pump," Elleithee said. "They need to get to work. They need to take their children to day care."
Kurt Bullard, a farmer who introduced Obama at a rural town hall meeting at the South Bend Fair Grounds, said that Obama "understands that the summer gas-tax holiday that's being proposed is just designed to win elections. We need a long-term energy policy. Barack has the courage to tell the truth."
Other Indiana voters said they'd like a little relief.
Shirley Nolot, the treasurer in Clark County, said at a Clinton event that she'd spoken with an elderly woman who said she had to decide whether she wanted to eat, or buy gas. A few dollars' savings a week "will help her," Nolot said. "It will buy her bread."
"It'll help a little, for awhile," said John Corban, 62, a retired hospital worker from South Bend.
Clinton, with her daughter Chelsea and mother Dorothy Rodham at her side, also spoke at length at one stop about her desire for equal pay for equal work, noting that women make only about 77 cents to the dollar compared to men, but when they go to the store, "you don't pay less."
Obama, too, was asked about pay disparities at a town hall meeting, and he said that men and women should be paid the same money if they do the same work. "There's nothing radical about that," he said. He also pledged to expand federal subsidies for child care, saying that could help women get on more equal footing professionally.
One voter threw Obama a wild card, asking him what the nation should do when so much of its economy is invested in making "things that kill people . . . things that blow people up."
"You talking about the defense industry?" Obama asked. He told the man that he had concerns about no-bid contracts and felt that America has more nuclear weapons than it needs, but that in general, "I do think we've got to maintain a very strong military."