DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Saturday lashed out at rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, accusing her of dodging tough questions about Social Security.

Obama, campaigning at a senior center in Des Moines, said all the presidential candidates need to talk honestly about Social Security instead of sidestepping the issue, but he singled out Clinton – the front-runner for the nomination – for special criticism.

Obama’s criticism of Clinton comes as she has been increasing her lead in national polls, leaving him and other Democratic candidates lagging far behind.

Obama’s campaign arranged for him to be introduced at the event by Tod Bowman, a teacher from Maquoketa, Iowa, who tried to pin down Clinton during a debate in Iowa earlier this month on whether the government should tax workers’ earnings above the present cap of $97,500 to help pay for Social Security benefits.

Clinton sidestepped the question in public, telling Bowman privately afterward that she didn’t want to put an additional tax burden on the middle class, but would consider a “gap,” with no Social Security taxes on income from $97,500 to around $200,000. Anything above that could be taxed. Her answer was overheard by an Associated Press reporter.

“A candidate for president owes it to the American people to tell us where they stand,” Obama said. “… because you’re not ready to lead if you can’t tell us where you’re going.”

“She’s not alone in avoiding answering this question directly – she’s not alone in ducking the issue,” Obama said. “Because conventional thinking in Washington says that Social Security is the third rail of American politics. It says you should hedge, and dodge, and spin, but at all costs, don’t answer.”

Bowman, who endorsed Obama on Saturday, said he “got the feeling (Clinton) really didn’t want to answer my question.”

“After the forum ended, she came up and spoke to me, it was nice of her to do that, and I appreciated her taking the time to do that. But, when I asked my question again, hoping she would answer it, this time she gave me a conflicting response,” he said. “It left me feeling disappointed, because I just didn’t understand why she wouldn’t tell me where she stood on an issue this important.”

Bowman added: “It made me wonder, if a candidate won’t answer a question on the campaign trail, how can we be sure she’ll be honest with the American people when they’re president?”

Clinton spokesman Mark Daley responded to Obama, saying the Illinois senator “has abandoned the politics of hope as his campaign has stalled.

“Maybe he should focus on explaining to Iowans why a few months ago he said that everything was on the table, including raising the retirement age, but today says he opposes it,” Daley said. “Sen. Clinton has been clear about her position on Social Security. She will oppose any effort to privatize the program. As president, her first priority will be restoring fiscal responsibility and fair tax policies, and then will work in a bipartisan process to address Social Security’s long term challenges.”

Obama is not the only Democratic candidate to criticize Clinton for being evasive on the issue. During an event last weekend, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards criticized Clinton for sidesteppinging Bowman’s question. When asked by reporters at a rural summit in Ames on Saturday what he thought of Obama’s comments, he seemed to agree.

“I have heard Sen. Clinton say in the debates that she is against changing benefits, against raising the retirement age, against privatization, so what is she going to do? I haven’t heard what she’s for,” Edwards said. “I also have heard that she has said in private to people that she actually thinks we might need to do something about the cap (on Social Security taxes). What’s the reason for saying something in private if you believe it, if it’s different than what you say in public?”

He added: “I do think it’s important for candidates to be straight with Americans about issues like Social Security.”

Edwards also singled out Clinton for criticism in remarks Saturday to about 80 people at a community center in Coulter, Iowa, chiding her for assuming she’s already the party favorite.

“I read a story in the New York Times that explained in part what she was doing and some of her supporters said she was moving from primary mode to general election mode,” he said. “Did I miss something? Did you all have the Iowa caucus and I was back in North Carolina asleep? I don’t think it’s happened yet.”

Daley, Clinton’s spokesman, said Edwards was the one in 2004 presidential campaign that claimed he would not criticize the other candidates.

“But he’s become that guy now that his 2008 campaign has stalled,” Daley said.

In Des Moines, Obama spoke about his solutions for Social Security, and said President Bush’s argument that the system is broken and needs and overhaul is an exaggeration.

“The underlying system is sound. The actual problem is a projected cash shortfall that can be readily solved. But the longer we wait to solve the problem, the bigger it grows,” Obama said.


Associated Press Writer Nafeesa Syeed in Coulter, Iowa, also contributed to this report.

AP-ES-10-27-07 1856EDT

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