INDIANAPOLIS Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama denounced huge pay packages for U.S. corporate chiefs on Friday in a drive to convert middle-class anger about the U.S. economy into votes.
"Some CEOs make more in one day than their workers make in one year," Obama said, jockeying for position against rival Democrat Hillary Clinton in Indiana, which votes on May 6.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania, which holds its primary election on April 22, Clinton proposed a $4 billion-a-year boost in federal spending to help cities and states fight crime, aiming to halve murder rates in America's most dangerous cities.
The New York senator announced the plan in Philadelphia, which has the highest homicide rate among the 10 biggest U.S. cities and is a major battleground in her race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama, who is leading Clinton in national polls and has about 130 more nominating delegates than she does, trails Clinton in Pennsylvania, the next major test for her struggling campaign.
Multimillion-dollar pay practices at the highest levels of corporate America have been an easy target for politicians as Americans reel from the mortgage and credit crises that have the U.S. economy teetering on the brink of an election-year recession.
Clinton and Republican presidential candidate John McCain also have criticized big payouts for chief executive officers who benefit hugely even when their companies are struggling.
"We've seen what happens when CEOs are paid for doing a job no matter how bad a job they're doing," Obama said. "We can't afford to postpone reform any longer."
The first-term Illinois senator has introduced "say-on-pay" legislation that would give investors more of a voice in setting executive compensation packages.
He said the legislation needs to be approved immediately. He later acknowledged to reporters that getting the bill moving quickly in the Senate could be tough, although his spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said he would make it a priority if he is elected president in November.
Obama took a shot at McCain over the issue, saying that while the Arizona senator has spoken out on corporate pay, "when he's had the chance to do something about this problem, he's opted for continuing the do-nothing approach" of President George W. Bush.
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers dismissed Obama's criticism, saying the legislation Obama was promoting was non-binding and would not cap or limit CEO pay and that "it sounds like more typical Washington shenanigans than 'new politics of hope and change.'"
McCain, campaigning in Texas, said shareholders should be more active in determining executive pay but that the federal government should stay out of it.
"In all due respect, if the government starts deciding what salaries of businessmen and women are, I think that's something that certainly flies in the face with my philosophy about the role of government in America," he said.
As the Democratic candidates focused on domestic issues, they also could not resist some jabs at each other.
Obama said he was surprised that Mark Penn, who was Clinton's chief campaign strategist until his resignation on Sunday, had been lobbying for the Colombian government on behalf of a free trade treaty that Clinton opposes.
"I'm not surprised that Sen. Clinton found herself in an uncomfortable position as a consequence and I know that if staff of mine were putting me in that kind of position, I would get rid of them," he said.
The Clinton campaign responded by renewing charges that an Obama economic adviser had quietly told the Canadian government not to take seriously Obama's rhetoric against the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico.
"When Sen. Obama's top economic adviser told the Canadian government not to take his anti-NAFTA rhetoric seriously, he first denied that the meeting ever occurred, and when that proved false he took absolutely no action. It's good to know he has a higher standard for our campaign than his own," said Clinton spokesman Jay Carson.
(Additional reporting by Claudia Parsons; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bill Trott)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)