Clinton dismisses 'elite' economists on gas tax plan

Sun May 4, 2008 9:50pm EDT

(Adds CBS/NYT poll, Obama on Clinton's Iran rhetoric)

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON, May 4 (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Sunday dismissed the "elite opinion" of economists who criticized her gas tax proposal, using a term that has dogged rival Barack Obama in recent weeks.

Obama, meanwhile, accused the New York senator of pandering on gas taxes and saber rattling toward Iran as both candidates gave television interviews before primary contests in North Carolina and Indiana. The two are battling to be their party's nominee to face Republican John McCain in November's election.

Appearing on ABC's "This Week," Clinton said it was time to move beyond the controversy surrounding Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

"We should definitely move on," the New York senator said in response to a question from the audience. "We should move on because there's so many important issues facing our country that we have to attend to."

Clinton raised questions about Obama's ability to connect with working-class Americans while dismissing economists who have said her plan to suspend gas taxes over the summer would do little good.

"I'm not going to put my lot in with economists," Clinton said when asked to name an economist who backed her proposal.

"We've got to get out of this mind-set where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans," said Clinton, a former first lady who would be the first woman president.

Critics have painted Obama as elitist for a comment he made about job losses causing some small-town Americans to become bitter and to cling to guns and religion.

That perception hurt the Illinois senator in the big blue-collar state of Pennsylvania, where Clinton won a crucial victory last month in the protracted Democratic contest.

The two candidates next square off in primaries in North Carolina and Indiana on Tuesday. Polls close by 7 p.m. EDT/2300 GMT in Indiana and by 7:30 p.m. EDT/2330 GMT in North Carolina. Results are expected shortly after.

'WASHINGTON GIMMICK'

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Obama dismissed Clinton's gas-tax proposal as "a classic Washington gimmick" that has no chance of becoming law.

"What this is is a strategy to get through the next election," he said.

Obama acknowledged he should have more quickly distanced himself from his former pastor who has suggested the U.S. government created AIDS to kill blacks and the Sept. 11 attacks were payback for U.S. foreign policy.

"When you're in national politics, it's always good to pull the Band-aid off quick," Obama said. "But life's messy sometimes, it's not always neat.

A CBS News/New York Times poll taken after Obama distanced himself from his former minister finds the Illinois senator leading Clinton by 12 points, 50 percent to 38 percent -- up from an eight-point lead in a survey released early last week.

In the NBC interview, the Illinois senator also compared Clinton's views on Iran to those of unpopular Republican President George W. Bush. Clinton has threatened to "totally obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel.

"It is important that we use language that sends a signal to the world community that we're shifting from the sort of cowboy diplomacy, or lack of diplomacy, that we've seen out of George Bush," he said.

Obama launched a new ad slamming Clinton's gas tax plan.

"Clinton aides admit it won't do much for you, but would help her politically," the ad's announcer says.

Clinton aides said the spot was misleading because a person cited in the Obama ad was actually criticizing McCain, not Clinton.

Obama spent the afternoon campaigning door-to-door in Elkhart, Indiana, where much of the talk was about high gas prices. One woman said it cost $4 to mow her lawn.

Clinton, meanwhile, encouraged supporters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to help get people to the polls on Tuesday.

She has spent $6.7 million in the two states, according to her campaign aides, while Obama has spent $10.5 million.

On Saturday night, Obama eked out a narrow seven-vote victory in the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam. (Additional reporting by Patrick Rucker in Washington and Caren Bohan and Jeff Mason in Indiana) (For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)