Video| But instead of facing off in Indiana, Obama says, he’ll go face to face with voters
By Mary Beth Schneider
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton put new pressure on her Democratic rival for the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama, to agree to a debate, but for now the only debating taking place is long-distance.
Winning Indiana is crucial to keeping her presidential campaign alive, and Clinton is clearly hoping another debate will help make the difference.
Her campaign manager, Maggie Williams, sent a letter Saturday to Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, calling for a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate, with no moderator or panel of journalists asking questions, just the two candidates taking turns speaking for two minutes each in a no-holds-barred face-off.
Speaking at a rally in South Bend, Clinton practically drew a line in the sand, noting Indiana’s renewed influence in the presidential nominating process this year.
“I’ve said I’ll be anywhere anytime in order to debate because I think the people of Indiana, after having wandered in the wilderness of American politics for 40 years, deserve a debate,” Clinton said.
Obama’s campaign, though, didn’t bite.
“We have participated in 21 nationally televised debates, the most in primary history, including four exclusively with Senator Clinton,” Obama communications director Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
He added that Clinton earlier turned down a debate in North Carolina, a state where Obama has been leading in the polls.
Now, he said, “we believe it’s important to talk directly to the voters of Indiana and North Carolina” about the economy, health care and the war.
Saturday, speaking at a Marion town hall meeting before Clinton’s debate challenge was made public, Obama told the 2,000 people there that he isn’t going to get dragged into any more political bickering, which he said is distracting from the issues people care about.
“All the reporting is about the latest negative ad, the latest gaffe, who’s saying what about who,” Obama said. “That’s not helping you. That’s not making your lives better. That may be boosting television ratings. It may be giving the chattering class something to chatter about.”
Obama told the crowd in Marion, and 1,200 people later in Anderson, that in the days between now and the May 6 primary elections in Indiana and North Carolina, he’s going to focus on issues such as putting people back to work, providing health care, improving schools and ending the war, and not “back-and-forth, tit-and-tat bickering.”
That didn’t mean Obama didn’t throw some elbow jabs Saturday, mostly at Sen. John McCain, who has already clinched the Republican nomination for president.
In Anderson, Obama, laying out his plans to raise fuel-efficiency standards for cars to reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil and bring down gas prices, told people that gas prices won’t come down overnight despite political promises.
“It’s one of John McCain’s latest schemes,” he said, referring to McCain’s proposal for the federal government to suspend the gasoline tax from Memorial Day through Labor Day this year.
That, Obama said, will save people about $25 but will take needed revenue from the federal fund used to build roads and bridges.
“Remember that bridge in Minneapolis?” he asked, citing last year’s fatal bridge collapse. “We’re already short on money in terms of investing, and for what? For 25 bucks?”
McCain’s campaign fired back in an e-mail statement noting that Obama voted to suspend Illinois’ sales tax on gasoline in 2000 while he was in the state Senate there.
“Americans are clearly hurting by increased costs at the pump, and John McCain has proposed tax relief that will help Indiana drivers immediately as they head into the summer driving season,” McCain spokesman Jeff Sadosky said.
Both Obama and Clinton spent most of the day Saturday appealing for the votes of working-class Hoosiers.
Clinton, who campaigned with Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh before 2,500 in Fort Wayne and 4,000 in South Bend, talked about reviving the industrial economy.
“We can do that again, but we need, as Senator Bayh said, a president who doesn’t just talk about it but who actually rolls up her sleeves and gets to work,” Clinton said.
Obama — the sleeves of his white shirt literally rolled up as he talked to the crowds in Marion and Anderson — noted the manufacturing jobs that have moved overseas during the years President Bush has been in the White House.
Both cities, he said, have unemployment rates of about 7 percent, much higher than the national average, and with family incomes several thousand dollars lower than the typical family makes nationwide.
McCain, he said, had recently praised the “great progress” the economy had made under Bush.
Those words brought derisive laughter from the crowd at Anderson High School.
“If he thinks that’s great progress, he must not be talking to the people of Anderson,” Obama said.