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Pandering At The Pump

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

Barack Obama wants to convince you he's not a panderer.

In an ad out this week called "Truth," the Illinois senator suggests that John McCain and Hillary Clinton's support for the suspension of the gas tax this summer represents cynical political posturing.

"That's typical of how Washington works," he says in the spot. "There's a problem, everybody's upset about gas prices, let's find some short-term, quick fix that we can say we did something even though we're not really doing anything."

Many analysts agree with Obama's suggestion that the gas tax suspension won't do much good. Economists told the Washington Post that suspending the tax would increase demand - and thus drive prices right back up. But Clinton, who has cast herself as a friend of working class voters, says she's just trying to give regular Americans some relief.

"People that are struggling to make ends meet - they're not looking for long term solutions," said Democratic political consultant Steve Jarding. "They're looking for how to fill their tank and pay their rent. For a whole lot of folks, that's a big deal. If I'm working two jobs to make ends meet and my money is going in the gas tank and a politician says, 'Hillary's pandering,' I don't necessarily look at it that way. I think she's trying to do something."

Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst, said "the anti-pander message" can be risky for a politician.

"Pandering is telling people what you think they probably want to hear," said Rothenberg. "Well, if they want to hear it, then it is a risk to go against it, by definition."

CBS News political consultant and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said the gas tax issue "goes to the heart of the fight for the whole nomination."

"Obama is saying, 'I'm not going to promise you something that I view as silly,'" Trippi said. "Hillary is appealing to those who say, 'No, I don't care about that, I want my $30.'" (Obama has suggested that the gas tax suspension would only save the average American about $30.)

"My own gut is that this may actually hurt her much more than it hurts him," Trippi added. "She's going to have to hold this line now for the rest of the campaign. It's going to be pretty clear to people after a while that this is no solution to the problem - it's just aimed at making me feel better right now for my vote. And that's a problem long term because I think people question her credibility."

Obama, meanwhile, runs the risk of exacerbating the perception that he doesn't understand the concerns of working class voters - a notion that gained steam after Obama's comments that some small-town voters have become "bitter" and "cling to guns or religion."

"This debate only reinforces the existing division within the Democratic Party," said Rothenberg. "His message works among upscale voters who can afford to pay the gas tax, and hurts him among the lower income people who think he is out of touch."

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who falls into the former category, called the gas tax suspension a "ridiculous idea," adding that "we're trying to discourage people from driving and we're trying to end our energy dependence." But Jarding, who has focused on rural areas, suggested that working class voters are more concerned with their own problems than broader issues like energy independence. And he said an anti-pandering message won't necessarily resonate with struggling workers.

"If all you say is 'I won't pander,' I think it leave you open to, 'OK, what are you going to do?,'" said Jarding. "People will say, 'I'll take pandering when I'm paying $4 per gallon.'"

Obama supports suspending purchases for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and, over the long term, taxing windfall oil profits and capping carbon emissions. Asked what the Illinois senator would do to provide short-term relief on gas prices, Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said he "will put a middle class tax cuts in [families'] pockets that will give them $1,000 per year, and will eliminate income taxes altogether for seniors making less than $50,000."

History has shown that doing what some economists consider the right thing isn't necessarily a winner politically. In the 1984 presidential campaign, Rothenberg notes, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale said that he was going to raise taxes, unlike his opponent Ronald Reagan - who went on to beat Mondale decisively. Rothenberg called that "the anti-pandering strategy from hell." Eight years later, Paul Tsongas labeled eventual nominee Bill Clinton a "pander bear" who "will say anything, do anything to get votes."

McCain has staked out an anti-pandering strategy of his own, casting himself as a "straight talker" who split with his party on issues like the Bush tax cuts, judicial nominees and campaign finance reform. (McCain did shift to somewhat less oppositional positions during his quest for the GOP nomination.) In Michigan, the Arizona senator suggested that some lost automobile industry jobs are not going to come back; rival Mitt Romney took a sunnier view, despite the industry's struggles, and won the state by nine percentage points.

With voters in Indiana and North Carolina going to the polls Tuesday, political watchers will soon be scouring returns for clues as to how well Obama's anti-pandering rhetoric plays with voters. (Not that he always adopts it: Obama has certainly left himself open to charges that he is pandering to the ethanol lobby in Iowa, for example.) The lessons learned from this debate could impact the candidates' rhetoric on issues like social security and trade policy down the road.

"It's not clear which way people will go on this," said Trippi. "Either people will look at the $30 and view it as a cheap trick to get their vote, or they'll see Obama's position as more evidence that he's an out of touch elitist. Then they're saying, 'I want that $30.'"
By Brian Montopoli