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McCain Camp Sees Energy As Winning Issue

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

If you're looking for someone to blame for high gas prices, John McCain's campaign is happy to help.

In a television ad released by the campaign last week, "Pump," an announcer criticizes Barack Obama for "saying no" to offshore drilling and "independence from foreign oil."

"Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?," she asks - after which a photo of Obama appears onscreen.

The spot has been derided by USA Today as "baloney" for laying the blame for high gas prices solely at Obama's feet, and Obama responded with an ad of his own in which an exasperated-sounding announcer suggests McCain blaming Obama for gas prices represents "the same old politics."

The McCain campaign has increasingly focused on gas prices and energy in recent days: In addition to two ads discussing the topic (here's the second one, released Wednesday), there have been conference calls to stress the short-term impact of McCain's proposals and a Monday photo op at a Bakersfield, California oil rig. There McCain sang the praises of expanded offshore drilling, which Obama opposes, and once again knocked Obama as "the Dr. No of America's energy future."

Republicans believe that the McCain campaign, which has been criticized for being overly reactive in its battle with Obama, has finally found an issue on which it can successfully go on the offensive.

"This is the first time the Republicans have felt upbeat and optimistic about a major issue in a long time," said Republican strategist Scott Reed. "McCain has framed the issue well, with solutions and a sharp contrast to Obama, and in Congress, Republicans seem to be rallying around this issue. They feel Democrats have boxed themselves in a corner."

"I think it's one of the best issues they have," said GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who ran Mike Huckabee's campaign. "So much in the McCain campaign has been small and sort of nitpicky, and this is a substantive issue that shows that he has strength and some vision, which I think is very, very important."

In a move seemingly designed to help put the issue in the spotlight, President George W. Bush recently lifted the presidential moratorium on offshore drilling - a largely symbolic move since Congress has its own ban. At a press conference Wednesday morning, Mr. Bush pressed the legislative body to allow for drilling to help ease high gas prices.

The American people appear to be moving in McCain's direction on the issue: A Pew survey released at the beginning of this month found that support for energy exploration is at its highest point of the decade. The survey also found that while just 22 percent of liberals said expanded exploration was their top energy priority (ahead of conservation) in February, that figure had jumped to 45 percent by June.

Earlier this month, Democratic strategist James Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg released findings that six-in-ten voters favor McCain's offshore drilling proposal. They suggested Obama and the Democrats "have not yet advanced a compelling narrative" on energy and gas prices.

In addition, support for building new nuclear power plants, another proposal supported by McCain, is at its highest point in more than 30 years - 57 percent of respondents in a recent CBS News/New York Times poll (PDF) indicated they supported building new plants.

Obama's energy plan "would force the oil companies to drill in the areas they've already leased, provide every American family with an immediate energy rebate and a middle-class tax cut worth $1,000, and invest $150 billion in renewable sources of energy that will create 5 million jobs and replace the oil we import from the Middle East by 2025," according to Obama campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan. Obama's new ad speaks of the candidate's plan to "crack down on oil speculators, raise mileage standards and fast track alternative fuels."

In a broad sense, according to Bruce Bullock, the director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University, "the mechanisms that Obama offers are more government oriented, whereas the mechanisms that McCain is talking about tend to be more incentive based towards the market."

The rival campaigns have been squabbling about which candidate offers short-term relief for Americans struggling with high gas prices. Though the McCain campaign acknowledges that offshore drilling won't result in an increase in the oil supply for a number of years, McCain economic advisor Martin Feldstein argued this week that "policies that affect long term-supply, like the McCain strategies for increasing exploration and production...have an immediate impact on today's prices."

The Obama team, meanwhile, dismisses McCain plans as doing nothing "to alleviate the crisis of the moment," in the words of Democratic Senator Bill Bradley, who characterize McCain's proposals as "pandering." In an earlier ad, the Obama campaign tied McCain's energy policy to that of President Bush and suggested McCain is "part of the problem."

Economist Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution said the McCain camp's argument that McCain's long-term proposals could have a short-term impact on prices is legitimate, though he said his "suspicion is that the impact would be very, very small."

Asked if there were any significant short-term solutions being offered by either candidate when it comes to high gas prices, Burtless said, "If you define a short-term solution as returning the U.S. to the price we were at five years ago, or even one year ago, I don't think there is anything practical on the horizon."

SMU's Bullock said that while both candidates' proposals "have some merit" - he points to Obama's emphasis on investments in alternative energy and McCain's push to increase supply - they are both offering "gimmicks" as well. (Among them, he says, are Obama's proposal for a windfall profits tax on oil companies and McCain's proposed gas tax holiday.)

"I don't think we can produce our way out of this, and I don't think we can conserve our way out of this," Bullock said.

In the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, voters indicated that they are largely on the same page as the economists, with the majority suggesting that neither candidate's policies will reduce gas prices anytime soon - though Obama had a slight edge over McCain among those who believed the candidates could do so.

Nonetheless, Republicans believe they are winning the perception battle on energy, and both President Bush and Congressional Republicans have begun spotlighting the issue. McCain senior advisor and spokesman Taylor Griffin promised that McCain will continue to press the issue, arguing that Obama "refuses to embrace real solutions."

"It's important for McCain to show his action plan for domestic issues," Reed said. "The rap on McCain is he didn't have much on the economy, but the truth is for the last two months he's pretty much owned the energy issue. He has found a political niche, and he's filled it."
By Brian Montopoli

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