INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Barack Obama likened Hillary Rodham Clinton to President George W. Bush Sunday as they clashed over foreign policy with two days to go before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries that are crucial to the presidential fortunes of both Democratic contenders.
Obama scolded Clinton for saying that the United States would “totally obliterate'' Iran if it attacks Israel. Clinton stood by her comment.
The foreign policy dustup came as the two candidates appeared separately on dueling Sunday news shows and as the drawn-out fight for the Democratic nomination grew ever more fierce ahead of Tuesday's pivotal pair of primaries.
Both candidates were focusing the bulk of their Sunday campaigning on Indiana, where polls show the race extremely close. They stayed overnight in Indianapolis hotels one block apart, and both were campaigning within miles of each other in Fort Wayne before returning to the capital city for the Indiana Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson Dinner.
But North Carolina was getting some last-minute attention, too. Both candidates shuffled their schedules to dart back to the state on Monday, reflecting the tightening contest there; polls show Clinton trimming Obama's lead.
Clinton suggested anew she had no intention of dropping out, saying on ABC television's “This Week'': “When the process finishes in early June, people can look at all the various factors and decide who would be the strongest candidate'' to go up against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain in the fall.
But an Obama victory in both Indiana and North Carolina could lead to a rush among remaining uncommitted superdelegates _ party officials and elected leaders who are free to vote for any candidate at the party's national convention _ to declare their support for the Illinois senator and give him enough delegates to claim the nomination.
A split decision or a Clinton victory in both states could raise doubts among superdelegates about Obama's electability and prolong the contest past the last two primaries in Montana and South Dakota on June 3.
Seeking the advantage, Obama seized on Clinton's recent answer when asked what she would do if she wins the White House and Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons.
“I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran,'' Clinton said April 22 in an interview with ABC television. “In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.''
On Wednesday, Iran strongly condemned Clinton for her remarks. Iran's deputy U.N. ambassador, Mehdi Danesh-Yazdi, called her comment “provocative, unwarranted and irresponsible'' and “a flagrant violation'' of the U.N. Charter.
Interviewed on NBC television's “Meet the Press'' Sunday, Obama said: “It's not the language we need right now, and I think it's language reflective of George Bush. We have had a foreign policy of bluster and saber rattling and tough talk and in the meantime have made a series of strategic decisions that have actually strengthened Iran.''
He also suggested Clinton's comments were politically motivated.
“Senator Clinton during the course of the campaign has said we shouldn't speculate about Iran, we've got to be cautious when we're running for president, she scolded me on a couple of occasions on this issue, yet a few days before an election, she's willing to use that language,'' he said.
Clinton, asked on ABC television's “This Week'' about Obama's criticism, said she had no regrets about her comment.
“Why would I have any regrets? I'm asked a question about what I would do if Iran attacked our ally, a country that many of us have a great deal of, you know, connection with and feeling for, for all kinds of reasons. And, yes, we would have massive retaliation against Iran,'' Clinton said.
“I don't think they will do that, but I sure want to make it abundantly clear to them that they would face a tremendous cost if they did such a thing,'' she said.
The two also squared off anew over Clinton's proposal for a gas tax holiday this summer, which Obama opposes.
Obama called the proposal a “classic Washington gimmick'' that wouldn't solve anything and would save only $28 for each person. Asked if the proposal amounted to a politician pandering, Obama said, “Yes.''
Money from the gas tax goes into a federal fund that pays for highway projects such as bridge and road construction. Obama says suspending the tax would eliminate thousands of construction jobs.
Clinton, for her part, disputed Obama's suggestions that she and Republican candidate John McCain were the same because they both support a gas tax holiday.
“Senator McCain has said take off the gas tax, don't pay for it, throw us further into deficit and debt. That is not what I've proposed,'' Clinton said, adding that she wants the oil companies to make up for the lost gas tax revenues instead of consumers this summer through a tax on their excessive profits.
Pressed to name an economist who supports such a holiday, Clinton demurred. “I'm not going to put my lot in with economists because I know if we did it right, if we actually did it right, if we had a president who used all the tools of his presidency, we would decide it in such a way that it would be implemented effectively.''
Clinton has used the gas tax holiday proposal to buttress her argument that her rival is out of touch with the needs of working-class Americans. Obama has cited it as an example of his opponent's embrace of what he calls old-style politics.
In the NBC interview, Obama acknowledged that the controversy over fiery remarks by his former pastor has “distracted'' attention from the critical issues facing Americans such as rising gas prices and the Iraq war. Obama has denounced the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who has criticized the United States for its history of racism and accused the government of spreading the HIV virus to harm blacks.
“What he said did not bring the country together, it divided the country,'' Obama said Sunday. “I'm someone who was born to a white mother and an African father and it's in my DNA to believe that we can bring this country together.''
Obama also tried to dispel concerns among some Democrats that he wasn't tough enough to withstand attacks from Republicans questioning his patriotism in the fall campaign.
“I have never challenged other people's patriotism and I will not stand by and allow someone else to question mine. …,'' he said. “I love this country … what I've been fighting for is that America lives up to its values and ideals.''
Obama eked out a seven-vote victory Saturday in the Guam Democratic Party caucuses half-a-world away, and he and Clinton both added to their delegate totals statewide.
The Guam caucuses added two pledged delegates each for Clinton and Obama. Votes in Guam for party chairman and vice chairman also added a superdelegate for Obama and subtracted one for Clinton because the outgoing vice chair had endorsed the New York senator.
Obama leads in the hunt for convention delegates _ 1,742.5 to 1,607.5, according to an Associated Press count Sunday _ but has hit a rough patch over the past month. That has Clinton sensing an opening after a strong win in Pennsylvania nearly two weeks ago. Still, the delegate math works in Obama's favor, and it will be difficult for Clinton to overtake him.
A total of 187 delegates are at stake Tuesday in North Carolina and Indiana.
It will take 2,025 delegates to secure the Democratic nomination at the party's national convention this summer in Denver.
Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy in Indianapolis contributed to this report.