By Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
IN THE GULF OF MEXICO, Aug. 19 -- Last month, a hurricane and an oil spill derailed Sen. John McCain's visit to an oil rig to tout his support for offshore drilling as a solution to the nation's energy woes.
But on Tuesday, his luck improved. Hurricane Fay stayed well to the southeast, giving McCain clear skies for the hour-long helicopter flight to the Genesis oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
Standing on the Chevron-operated oil rig, which produces more than 10,000 barrels of oil per day, the presumptive Republican nominee declared that, as president, he would open the nation's coasts to expanded drilling in a effort to lower gas prices and reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
"When I'm president, there will be a whole lot more like this, not only here in the Gulf but also off of our East and West coasts," McCain said in brief remarks to the media. "We need to drill offshore; we need to do it now."
The success of the elaborately staged photo-op represents something of a turnaround for McCain's campaign, which a few weeks ago seemed dogged by an interminable spell of bad luck. His first attempt at the oil rig visit was postponed after a huge oil spill in the Mississippi River in New Orleans.
But in the weeks since, McCain's campaign has begun to find its sea legs.
The campaign is succeeding at driving a daily message that is more aggressive and often has put Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) on the defensive, leaving some Democrats publicly fretting about his campaign and pleading for him to respond or get cover. Obama does not share their concerns, telling supporters this week that "I will win" and suggesting he will turn the campaign into a choice between change and a candidate who he argues is like President Bush.
Last week, the conflict in Georgia heightened concerns about Russian aggression and highlighted McCain's experience in foreign policy -- helped by his relentless focus on the growing tensions there.
Over the weekend, McCain emerged from a forum at the Saddleback evangelical church with high praise from conservatives for his answer to the question about when life begins. He said simply, "At conception."
McCain aides were determined to return to the oil rig, convinced that his new enthusiasm for drilling is a winning issue. McCain and aide Brooke Buchanan were joined by eight journalists in a helicopter for the hour-long flight to the rig 150 miles off the Louisiana coast.
Obama, like many experts, has argued that oil drilling will not reduce gas prices in the short term, although the Democrat has said he could support drilling as part of a compromise to pass legislation on the issue.
Democrats on Tuesday were quick to point out McCain's opposition to a bipartisan effort in Congress that would include increased offshore drilling. In a conference call, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack accused McCain of being in the pocket of "big oil" companies.
"The reality is that Senator McCain can visit oil rigs and do photo ops all he wants, but it is pretty clear from the policies he's advocating that he's literally over the barrel when it comes to the oil industry," Vilsack said. But McCain is not backing off his support of new drilling, and his visit here was the most striking declaration of that position.
The tour was brief, as officials spent half an hour explaining to him how oil and natural gas are extracted and produced at the rig. He spent more time traveling to the rig than he spent on it, and read his remarks from a sheet of paper an aide had prepared in what was essentially a photo-op at sea.
The candidate seemed to enjoy the event. After walking several flights of stairs to reach one of the platforms on the rig, he offered water to the huffing and puffing reporters but pronounced himself ready to go. He gave his statement, enthusiastically thanked the Chevron employees and squeezed back into the Sikorsky S-76 to head back to New Orleans.
"That was great," he said at the end of the tour, wearing an orange hat and black safety goggles. Then he invited Obama out to visit an oil rig. "I think it would probably change his mind."
Shear reported from Washington.