Oil May Become GOP's 2008 Issue

Sen. John McCain climbs atop an oil delivery truck with Donna Buxton during a campaign stop at Buxton Oil Inc. in Epping, N.H.
Sen. John McCain climbs atop an oil delivery truck with Donna Buxton during a campaign stop at Buxton Oil Inc. in Epping, N.H. (Pool Photo By Bob Lapree Via Associated Press)
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By Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Four-dollar-a-gallon gas has done something that few Republicans thought possible just a few months ago: given them hope.

United behind a renewed push for offshore oil drilling, Republican members of Congress and the party's presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, think they have found their best political issue of the 2008 campaign.

McCain strategists and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill say the issue, which polls suggest Americans favor by healthy margins, lets Republicans demonstrate their plans to address the anger over high gas prices as well as the broader economic distress that many voters feel.

Because most Democrats, including Sen. Barack Obama, are opposed to increased drilling, McCain and the GOP have already begun casting their rivals as unconcerned about gas prices and unwilling to wean the country from foreign oil.

"The failure of Senator Obama to understand the need to increase domestic production is just stunning, and that's going to be a real hurdle for him to overcome, because everybody gets it," said Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior McCain adviser.

The risks for Republicans became clear this week, however, when a McCain visit to an offshore oil rig was quickly scuttled in the face of Hurricane Dolly and a massive fuel oil spill in the Mississippi River near New Orleans.

McCain's support for offshore drilling also threatens to unite environmentalists against him, after he spent months portraying himself as a friend of the environment by endorsing the basic tenets of those who want to wage war on global warming.

"Apparently, hundreds of thousands of gallons of spilled oil, dead fish and oil-covered birds aren't ideal conditions for peddling a misguided plan for more offshore drilling," said Cathy Duvall, the national political director of the Sierra Club. "Unfortunately, the risk for such spills -- and far worse -- would only increase if John McCain and George Bush get their way and allow Big Oil to begin the 'exploitation' of our coasts."

McCain and his advisers reject such criticism, saying the safety record for deep-sea oil rigs is very good. The oil slick in the Mississippi River was caused by a collision between a tanker and a barge, not a leak at an oil rig.

"I'm sorry we were unable to go to an offshore oil rig, because I think that drilling offshore is a vital step in addressing the price of oil and America's energy needs," McCain told reporters Thursday.

Republicans have also sought to gain traction on the issue by portraying Obama and Democrats as the "do nothing" party when it comes to solving the nation's energy needs.

Obama aides say the Democrat supports legislation that would encourage oil companies to drill in offshore areas that are already approved but not used. And aides cite his plan for a $20 billion economic stimulus package that would provide rebates that people could use to pay for gasoline as well as efforts to crack down on oil speculators who drive up prices on the world market.

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