INDIANAPOLIS — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton tried mightily Sunday to convince Indiana and North Carolina voters there are stark differences between them on Iran, gasoline tax freezes and other key issues in the closing days before crucial Democratic presidential primaries in those states.
Clinton painted herself the sensitive champion of the middle class and the candidate of experience, while Obama presented himself as a thoughtful agent of change, someone who would not be lured by what backers deride as sound-bite solutions to complex issues.
Latest polls show Indiana as too close to call, while Obama has a 5 to 9 percentage point advantage in North Carolina. Obama currently leads in Democratic convention delegates, 1,742.5 to Clinton's 1,607.5, with 2,025 needed to nominate.
The candidates' most vivid clash Sunday involved a two-week old Clinton comment about how she'd react if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons.
"We will attack Iran," she told ABC April 22. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."
Obama, appearing Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," struck back with calm outrage. "It's not the language we need right now, and I think it's language reflective of George Bush," he said.
"We have had a policy of bluster and saber rattling and tough talk," the Illinois senator added, "and in the meantime have made a series of strategic decisions that have actually strengthened Iran."
Clinton, who was appearing at an Indianapolis town hall meeting on ABC's "This Week," defended her stance.
"Why would I have any regrets?" the New York senator asked.
"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, you know, connection with and feeling for, for all kinds of reasons," she said.
"And yes, we would have massive retaliation against Iran," Clinton added, though she 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."
It was unclear whether any of this would dramatically affect Tuesday's outcome. Ann Siegfried, 59, a retired teacher from Huntington, Indiana, watched both shows Sunday.
"I never want to see us get into a war of any kind and to say we'd 'obliterate' says to me, 'War at any cost,''' said Siegfried, who plans to vote for Obama but also likes Clinton.
But, she said, attitudes toward Iran are not a defining issue for her. Instead, she said, her preference for Obama is a "gut feeling."
Apart from the presidential campaign, Clinton has come under fire in some diplomatic circles for her April remarks. On Wednesday Iran's Deputy Ambassador to the UN Mehdi Danesh-Yazdi, Iran's deputy United Nations Ambassador, called them "provocative, unwarranted and irresponsible," while Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, former UN deputy secretary-general, said her suggestion "is not probably prudent."
The talk show skirmish — one that continued as the candidates moved around the state Sunday to campaign — also involved gasoline taxes.
Clinton called her plan to suspend the federal 18.4 cent a gallon gasoline tax strong evidence that she's plugged in to concerns of the average worker. Obama Sunday dubbed the idea a "classic Washington gimmick" and "a strategy to get through the next election" that would barely be noticed by consumers — a position backed by most major economists and environmentalists.
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson Sunday termed the dispute a "critical distinction" between the two candidates. Clinton he said is "someone who understands the pain that middle class and working class families are feeling. ... Sen. Obama (is) somebody who just doesn't seem to understand middle class families are hurting and they need relief."
Obama would not relent. "You're looking at suspending a gas tax for three months," he said. "The average driver would save 30 cents per day for a grand total of $28. That's assuming the oil companies don't step in and raise prices by the same amount that the tax has been reduced."
What's needed, Obama said, is a change in how Washington deals with such crises.
"Let's invest in alternative fuels," he said, "raising fuel efficiency standards on cars, and let's get serious about reducing consumption of oil, which is the only way that over the long term that we're going to reduce gas prices."
Clinton maintained that her plan is not the only part of her proposal to reduce this country's dependence on oil.
"I have long-term plans, too," she said. "I mean, it's a misnomer to say this is all that I'm doing. It's not."
The Clinton town hall meeting was moderated by George Stephanopoulos. He was a key adviser to Bill Clinton during his presidency but Stephanopoulos' relationship with the couple cooled for years after Stephanopoulos wrote a book critical of the Clinton presidency.
Obama was interviewed in an Indianapolis television studio. His biggest political hurdle became evident quickly, as "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert spent about 25 minutes quizzing him about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the controversial pastor who guided Obama's church. Obama has distanced himself from Wright, but many voters have expressed serious concern about the relationship.
Obama was emphatic Sunday about Wright. "My commitment is to Christ. It's not to Rev. Wright," he said.
Would you seek his counsel? Russert asked. "Absolutely not," Obama replied.