The focus of the nation’s presidential candidates turned to the pocketbook Monday as Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled a plan to suspend federal gas taxes while her Democratic rival, Barack Obama, and Republican John McCain traded criticism over the effect of a gas tax cut.
A week before the May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina -- and with the Hoosier State viewed as yet another must-win contest for Clinton -- the New York senator proposed a windfall-profits tax on oil companies to make up for a shortfall that would result from suspending the 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline and the 24.4-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel during peak summer months.
Arizona Sen. McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, was the first to endorse a federal motor fuel tax suspension between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Illinois Sen. Obama has questioned the value of such a move, saying it would save consumers little and do nothing to prevent oil companies from increasing the price at the pump.
Obama and Clinton have called for more stringent regulatory measures to prevent price gouging. But Obama’s opposition to the so-called gas tax holiday provided yet another opportunity for Clinton and McCain to gang up on the Democratic front-runner.
Clinton’s proposal, backed up by a new TV ad in Indiana, also represented her continued efforts to secure an advantage over Obama among less-affluent voters. “With gas this expensive, talk is cheap. It’s time for leadership,” a narrator says.
“Sen. McCain says he’s all for a gas tax holiday but won’t pay for it,” Clinton said in Graham, N.C., adding that “my opponent, Sen. Obama, opposes giving consumers a break.”
In Wilmington, N.C., Obama criticized McCain’s proposal as a “short-term quick fix” that would save drivers $25 to $30 or “half a tank of gas” over the three months.
“We could suspend the gas tax for six months, but that’s not going to bring down the gas prices long-term,” Obama said. “We’ve got to go after the oil companies and look at their price gouging. We’ve got to go after windfall profits . . . then we’ve got to use less oil, and that means raising fuel efficiency standards for cars.”
As has Clinton, Obama contended that McCain had failed to explain how lost federal gas tax revenue, earmarked for the nation’s highway trust fund, would be made up. McCain said general revenue would replenish the trust fund.
McCain and Republicans have chided Obama’s opposition to a federal gas tax holiday, noting that as an Illinois state senator, he voted for a temporary suspension of the state’s sales tax on gasoline to cut pump prices.
Though Clinton has trailed Obama in North Carolina polling, she was expected to get the endorsement of the state’s governor, Michael F. Easley, a superdelegate who could help buttress her organization. Obama gained another convention superdelegate with the endorsement of New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman.
Meanwhile, a new Associated Press-Ipsos survey showed Clinton faring better than Obama nationally against McCain. Clinton leads McCain 50% to 41%; Obama is up 46% to 44% over McCain -- a virtual tie.
Tribune news services contributed to this report.