PORTAGE, Indiana (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton pulled into a gas station in a borrowed pickup truck on Wednesday hoping to drive home the political message that she feels the pain of the working class at the pump.
The Democratic presidential candidate is making as much political theater as she can — including using a commuter as a prop — to press her appeal to blue-collar voters anxious about soaring gas prices as she campaigns in Indiana this week.
Before a crucial nominating contest in the state next week, Clinton used the common political tactic of getting close to voter concerns by joining their lives.
On Wednesday she joined Jason Wilfing, a sheet-metal worker, for part of his daily 45-minute commute. They rode in a large pickup, borrowed from his boss because his own truck was too small to accommodate Secret Service agents, and, accompanied by nine security vehicles, drove to a gas station.
Clinton paid $64 for Wilfing to fill up half the truck’s gas tank — watchdog group Consumer Reports estimates such a truck gets 10 miles to the gallon — and told reporters how voters like Wilfing badly need a respite from high fuel costs.
She is proposing a “gas tax holiday,” in which the federal tax on gasoline would be lifted temporarily for consumers weighed down by skyrocketing costs at the gas pump.
“If you’re like a lot of people I meet who commute 60, 75 miles, who like living in the country but their job is pretty far away, this is going to help,” she said.
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain also has proposed suspending the 18.4-cents-per-gallon federal tax rate during the peak summer driving months.
But Clinton’s Democratic rival, Barack Obama, has criticized the plan as pure politics and said the only way to lower the price of gas is to use less oil.
Many economists agree with Obama, saying that since refineries cannot increase their supply of gasoline in the space of a few summer months, lower prices will just boost demand and the benefits will flow to oil companies, not consumers.
Still, political strategist Jeffrey Plaut said Clinton was “hitting a responsive chord.”
“Working people in Indiana are getting angry every time they fill up their tanks,” he said. “Targeting gas prices is good politics.”
The focus on working-class voters comes on the heels of accusations by the Clinton campaign that Obama was elitist after his comments that some Americans cling to religion and guns out of economic frustration.
Clinton has “found her groove with white, blue-collar workers,” said political analyst Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia.
“The white, blue-collar guy says, ‘Good for her, that would help, at least somebody is trying to do something,’” Sabato said.
Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek columnist, called the gas tax holiday a “crass ploy for votes” that would offer only small relief to consumers and encourage gasoline consumption.
Never mind the long-term consequences, said Douglas Muzzio, professor of public affairs at City University of New York.
“She’s talking to the voters that she needs next Tuesday,” he said. “The larger context doesn’t matter right now.”
Editing by Xavier Briand