WASHINGTON The heated presidential campaign battle over a federal gas tax holiday turned out to be a much needed gift for Barack Obama -- and he can thank Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
The fight, which dominated the final days before the North Carolina and Indiana contests, gave him an opening to talk about the economy with working-class voters and helped Obama at least temporarily bury the controversy about his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Democratic strategists said Obama's focus on the economy as he rejected a summer-long suspension of the gas tax as a "political gimmick" will make him a better candidate heading into a likely battle against Republican John McCain in November.
"The game changer in the last week was when Clinton went after him on the gas tax," said Simon Rosenberg, head of the Democratic advocacy group NDN. "Obama pivoted very well to the economy and figured out how to talk about the struggles of everyday people."
As he engaged Clinton on the gas tax, Obama shifted his campaign events in Indiana and North Carolina to smaller settings where he took a more personal approach to talking to voters about their economic anxieties.
Rosenberg said Obama's closing ads on the economy in both states were particularly effective. Obama did not air an economic ad in the final days of last month's campaign in Pennsylvania, where he lost badly to Clinton.
"The new Obama, who has survived Jeremiah Wright and now has a powerful economic argument, is a significantly better candidate than he was three weeks ago," Rosenberg said.
"Clinton is the one who moved the national conversation from Jeremiah Wright. Her campaign did that. It was the greatest gift," he said.
Obama's big win in North Carolina and narrow loss in Indiana on Tuesday widened his advantage over Clinton in the Democratic race and effectively ended her chances.
It was a comeback for Obama from a difficult campaign stretch marked by the loss in Pennsylvania and a renewal of the controversy over racially charged comments by Wright. Obama condemned Wright and severed ties with his longtime pastor last week before plunging into the gas tax fight with Clinton.
THROW A PUNCH
The Illinois senator used the gas tax holiday to resurrect his promise to take a new approach to old problems -- and to show he was willing to throw a punch.
"I was looking for that fighting spirit," said David Bonior, a former congressman and campaign manager for John Edwards's failed 2008 presidential bid who endorsed Obama on Thursday.
Clinton said Obama's opposition to a gas tax suspension was a sign he was out of touch. Obama said she was pandering, and argued a suspension of the gas tax would provide little relief because oil companies would hike their prices to make up the difference.
"Most people may not know in their gut who was right and who was wrong on the gas tax, but talking about the economy as much as he did helped him," said Democratic consultant Erik Smith, who is not affiliated with either campaign.
Exit polls in both states showed Clinton still crushed Obama among white working-class voters without college degrees, but he improved his ratings on the economy while Clinton's ratings on trustworthiness dropped.
When economists dismissed the gas tax idea as useless, Clinton said she was "not going to put my lot in with economists" and highlighted the issue as proof she would fight to help working-class voters.
Clinton aides said the debate worked in her favor, but during stops in West Virginia on Wednesday and Thursday she dropped her criticism of Obama on the issue.
Clinton strategist Geoff Garin noted she gained ground on Obama in Indiana after the issue arose. "The gas tax helped Senator Clinton in this race," he said.
Questions about Wright are certain to return in the general election and Obama must address his difficulties with white working-class voters, but analysts said his performance in the past week eased Democratic concerns about his campaign.
"You come through fire and you come out stronger, and he came through fire," Rosenberg said.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http:/blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)