White working class vote still eludes Obama

It may have been Kentucky Derby weekend, but it was that other horse race in America – the political one between the rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination – that continued to demand attention yesterday with two more do-or-die primary contests set for tomorrow in Indiana and North Carolina.

Barack Obama is in grave need of strong results in both states to counter the claims of his opponent Hillary Clinton that he cannot connect with the white working class. Mrs Clinton, lagging behind in delegate numbers, is similarly under pressure to do well – at least coming close in North Carolina and taking Indiana – lest she face renewed pressure to abandon a race many feel has gone on for too long.

The final stretch into tomorrow's voting was dominated by skirmishing over a proposal to lift the federal petrol tax to help hard-pressed working Americans fill their tanks amidst fast-rising prices. The move is backed by Mrs Clinton and John McCain, the Republican nominee, but opposed by Mr Obama.

In a self-assured appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Mr Obama called the tax holiday a "classic Washington gimmick" that would do little good but may spur new demand and push up the base price of petrol even further. They tried the idea in his home state of Illinois and it failed, he said. "I voted for it," he added. "Then six months later we took a look and consumers had not benefited at all. I learned from a mistake."

Mr Obama campaigned intensely across Indiana over the weekend, bringing his wife, Michelle, and their two young children along for a couple of appearances on Saturday – at a merry-go-round and a roller-skating rink – in an attempt to underscore family values to voters. If Mr Obama loses heavily among white and blue collar voters tomorrow, Mrs Clinton will underscore her case to uncommitted super delegates that she will be the better candidate come November.

An Associated Press-Yahoo poll did not offer the Obama camp much respite. It showed that 53 per cent of white adults with no college education viewed the candidate unfavourably, up a dozen points since a similar survey in November. The poll also continued to suggest that white working-class Americans lean overwhelmingly towards Mrs Clinton.

Mr Obama, who scraped past Mrs Clinton in voting in the tiny US Pacific territory of Guam on Saturday, would breathe much easier come tomorrow night if he can prevail in Indiana. "If we win Indiana we've got the nomination," he said last week. He admitted on NBC that whatever the outcome he expects Mrs Clinton to keep fighting through to the last primaries on 3 June.

But winning Indiana will be tough with polls showing him trailing slightly. Helping Mr Obama, at least, are large concentrations of black voters in Indianapolis, in the state's centre, and around the gritty city of Gary, which lies just across the border from southern Illinois, where he lives.

Uncertain is how his resistance to the petrol tax holiday will play with voters in Indiana and North Carolina. Numerous economists have voiced their own disapproval of what Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain are proposing, which at best could save families 30 cents a day. "I was appalled by Hillary going with the gas tax," said Alice Rivlin, the budget director under Bill Clinton.

Mr Obama has stood his ground on the issue. "Only in Washington can you get away with calling someone out of touch when you're the one who thinks that 30 cents a day is enough to help people who are struggling," he said. "I think the American people are smarter than Washington gives them credit for."

His win in Guam by just seven votes may have been a fillip, but only a small one. The territory will send only four delegates to the party convention – two for each of the candidates.

On Meet the Press, Mr Obama admitted that the continuing noise surrounding the Rev Jeremiah Wright "wasn't welcome" for his campaign, but added: "I think that the American people understand that when I joined Trinity United Church of Christ I was committing not to Pastor Rev Wright, I was committing to a church and I was committing to Christ."

Mrs Clinton, speaking on ABC, said both campaigns "should definitely move on" from the Wright affair.