As they traveled across Indiana and North Carolina over the last few days, trading charges and countercharges about the wisdom of suspending the federal gas tax for the summer, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were really having a larger fight.
They were arguing over who had better economic instincts.
For all the similarities between the two Democrats, there is also a core thematic difference between them. Mrs. Clinton tends to favor narrowly focused programs, like the gas-tax holiday, that speak to specific voter concerns. By suspending the tax and replacing it with a new tax on oil companies, Mrs. Clinton told a rally in Hendersonville, N.C., on Friday, she was standing with “hard-pressed Americans who are trying to pay their gas bills.”
Mr. Obama, on the other hand, leans toward broader programs meant to help nearly all middle- and low-income families. At a steel factory in Northwest Indiana on Friday, Mr. Obama called the tax holiday a “gimmick” and said he instead favored a cut in the payroll tax, which finances Social Security, of up to $1,000 for middle-class households “to offset the costs not only of gas, but also of food.”
The dueling instincts do not explain all the differences between the two Democrats. They also disagree about a health-insurance mandate (Mrs. Clinton favors one) and the capital-gains tax (Mr. Obama has indicated he would raise it more than Mrs. Clinton would). Mr. Obama is open to increasing the amount of income subject to the Social Security payroll tax; Mrs. Clinton has been critical of that idea.
But their contrasting approaches do extend to a range of issues, including the current economic slowdown, the mortgage crisis and retirement savings. The contrast has been present since before the primaries began — when Mr. Obama announced his middle-class tax cut, for example, and when Mrs. Clinton took out a whimsical television advertisement in which she was labeling Christmas gifts as if each were a specific policy proposal.
“Where did I put universal pre-K,” Mrs. Clinton asks herself, looking around. “Ah, there it is!”
The contrast between their approaches also highlights what many economists consider to be the biggest weakness of each candidate’s plan.
As the economy has slowed, Mrs. Clinton has released a series of proposals — to stimulate growth, stem home foreclosures and, most recently, reduce energy costs — that have helped burnish her image as the candidate most in touch with the specific concerns of working families. Yet policy experts say these proposals have generally made for better politics than economics.
“I was appalled by Hillary going with the gas tax,” said Alice M. Rivlin, a budget director under former President Bill Clinton who supports Mrs. Clinton for the nomination. It “looked like pandering,” Mrs. Rivlin said.
An open letter signed recently by more than 100 economists said the proposed tax holiday would do little to reduce gas prices. In part, that is because a fall in prices would lead to more demand, which would cause prices to return to their earlier level. The result would be that overseas oil-producing governments would get money now flowing to the United States government in gas taxes.
Along similar lines, Mrs. Clinton’s proposed stimulus plan was widely considered to be more complex and less effective than Mr. Obama’s suggestion of quick tax cuts, which was the same approach Congress and the White House ultimately took.
But Mr. Obama gets lower marks from budget experts for fiscal discipline. His package of tax cuts and new spending would cost roughly $300 billion a year, while Mrs. Clinton’s would cost less than $250 billion. Economists said they were skeptical he could pay for his program without increasing the deficit.
“Obama has a shorter list of tax breaks,” said Leonard E. Burman, director of the Tax Policy Center in Washington, “but has some really big items on it.”
Policy analysts specifically criticize Mr. Obama’s proposal to eliminate income taxes for senior citizens with up to $50,000 in income. Thanks to Social Security and Medicare, the federal government already spends a large amount of resources on older citizens.
“The tax system already does a pretty good job of protecting poor and near-poor seniors,” said Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
Both campaigns defend their proposals. Mr. Obama’s advisers say he would pay for his plans by, among other things, raising the capital-gains tax more than Mrs. Clinton would and doing more to crack down on corporate-tax evasion. His broad cut in the payroll tax is an aggressive response to middle-class income stagnation, they say, and, because most senior citizens do not pay payroll taxes, they need additional help.
“I’m the only candidate who’s proposed a genuine middle-class tax cut,” Mr. Obama said Saturday in Indianapolis, “that’s paid for in part by closing corporate loopholes and shutting down tax havens.” He also talked about his support for a tax credit to help homeowners who do not itemize their taxes and thus do not benefit from the mortgage deduction.
Clinton advisers say that her remedies to the economic slowdown have been more focused than Mr. Obama’s and that, early on, she correctly identified the housing market as needing specific help. Her economic plans would provide short-term relief to families in the months and years before her longer-term plans — on energy conservation, for instance — would have an effect, the aides say.
Mrs. Clinton often talks about other countries, like Germany, that have created jobs and cut their reliance on imported oil by investing in alternative energy.
“We lost 20,000 jobs last month, and people are saying, ‘Well, that’s better than we thought,’ ” she said at a John Deere sales center in North Carolina on Friday. “I don’t accept that at all.”
The Clinton and Obama approaches still have many more similarities than differences. Whether through focused tax breaks or sweeping ones, both candidates would reduce taxes on middle-class households and raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year.
Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, by contrast, would make permanent nearly all of the Bush tax cuts, including those on high earners. McCain advisers say allowing taxes on high earners to return to their pre-Bush levels would damage the economy when it is already vulnerable.
Both Democratic candidates have also promised to regulate corporate America more closely than President Bush has and to spend more than $100 billion a year on an overhaul of the health-care system.
The one major difference between their health plans has received more attention than it deserves, economists say. Although opinion is divided, they generally favor the Clinton policy, which would require all Americans to have insurance, potentially making the health-care system more efficient. But health analysts say the Clinton campaign has falsely suggested the Obama plan would exclude people who wanted to sign up for insurance.
Despite the individual criticisms of the two agendas, policy experts praise both candidates for an unusually substantive primary campaign, each having come forward with detailed plans to address climate change, the middle-class squeeze and the decline of company-provided health insurance.
Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have also been more forthcoming than Mr. McCain about how they would pay for their plans. Mr. McCain has proposed almost $300 billion a year in new tax cuts, on top of President Bush’s cuts, but has offered little detail about how he would pay for them.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the McCain campaign’s top economic adviser, has said Mr. McCain would later offer more details and that the tax cuts would spur economic growth, reducing their cost.
Perhaps the most important question, policy analysts say, is how Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Obama’s different approaches would affect their governing style.
On many budget matters, Mrs. Clinton’s instincts seem similar to her husband’s. Both favor carefully crafted tax credits that can help people who most need it, that come with relatively modest price tags and that seem likely to survive a divided Congress.
Mr. Obama sometimes talks of his vision of an “iPod government,” with simple programs that people can understand. He also talks of persuading voters and members of Congress, including Republicans, to support his plans.
Either way, the debate may not last much longer. No matter which Democrat is nominated, the disagreements with Mr. McCain are likely to be far larger.
-Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.