Vice President Gore promised today that as president he would go far beyond Clinton administration policy and order a complete ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along the coasts of California and Florida.
Gore was not the only presidential candidate offering policy positions today in this key state. Republican Steve Forbes released a package of economic initiatives that featured his old standby, the flat tax, as well as a permanent ban on Internet taxes and a constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds vote in Congress to pass any tax increase.
Gore was clearly attempting to reestablish his environmental credentials, which have been challenged recently by some discontented activists, and draw a distinction between his agenda and President Clinton's.
The most controversial of Gore's proposals was his pledge to sign an executive order prohibiting drilling in waters where leases have been granted, virtually guaranteeing protracted legal battles with energy companies that have invested $1.2 billion to secure drilling rights.
"I will take the most sweeping steps in our history to protect our oceans and coastal waters from offshore oil drilling," Gore said at the Seacoast Science Center here.
Gore also began airing a 30-second television commercial in California touting today's anti-drilling pledge.
Last year, Gore joined Clinton in Monterey, Calif., to announce a moratorium on drilling until 2012. But Clinton resisted an outright ban on drilling, and his moratorium does not affect 43 producing wells and 36 leased sites off the California coast. "I would go farther, significantly farther than that," Gore said today, stressing that he wants to prevent the 36 leased sites from becoming producing oil fields.
Interior Department officials were caught off guard by Gore's announcement and struggled to explain why Clinton had not endorsed a similar drilling ban. Gore said that the administration was waiting for more data on drilling but that he had seen enough to be convinced.
Like Clinton, Gore makes no attempt in his proposal to curtail exploration in states such as Texas and Louisiana, where oil and gas companies are extremely powerful.
Industry officials attacked Gore's proposal, saying it could force them to take jobs overseas. "The fact that seems to get lost in the political arena is that natural gas is underground and under the seabed," said Juan Palomo, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute.
Ironically, the man who wrote "Earth in the Balance" has had some difficulty mobilizing the environmental community, in part because of its high expectations for him and in part because some advisers have feared that a high-profile environmental agenda would scare off an already skeptical business community. But when his lone Democratic opponent, Bill Bradley, snatched up the endorsement of Friends of the Earth, it was a wake-up call for the Gore camp.
"I think it's a question of leadership," Gore said when asked to compare himself to Bradley on this issue. "Those in the environmental movement will tell you that I have often been somebody they looked to to carry the ball when nobody else would."
The vice president was less diplomatic in his assessment of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who Gore said "has led a state that has become No. 1 in the country" for toxic releases to air, water and land. "The lenient approach that has looked the other way at serious pollution problems in Texas has characterized the approach of that candidate."
Once ridiculed by former president George Bush as "Ozone Man," Gore said today, "I'm going to make the issue of the environment a centerpiece of my campaign for president."
On the Republican side, virtually all of the major candidates were in New Hampshire today or will be over the next couple of days as the race heats up a little more than three months before the Feb. 1 primary.
A poll released today by independent New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett suggests that the candidate who has helped himself the most in the state is Arizona Sen. John McCain. In the poll, McCain, who was at 3 percent in February, was at 26 percent to Bush's 42 percent. Bush has hovered in the same range since summer. Bennett attributed McCain's improvement to the dozens of days he has spent campaigning in the state over the last several months.
The same poll, taken before Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the race Wednesday, suggested that her support had eroded significantly. Her numbers fell from a high of 25 percent in February to 3 percent. And Patrick J. Buchanan, who is expected to announce on Monday that he will leave the GOP for the Reform Party, has dropped from 9 percent in July to 2 percent.
Steve Forbes, who was at 7 percent in Bennett's poll, spent the day campaigning in and around Manchester, where this afternoon he delivered what his campaign billed as a major economic announcement. Forbes conceded later in an interview that there were no new initiatives in the speech.
Instead, he wrapped together earlier proposals, some with more detail, and issued highly optimistic projections for what his plan would do for the economy. Forbes also reiterated his call for private Social Security retirement accounts and said he would reform education by sending Title I money back to the states as block grants and by providing parents the option of sending their children to private or public schools at taxpayer expense.
Forbes spoke at the home of Stephen and Katherine Frick, a Republican couple who are undecided about whom they will vote for next year. Stephen Frick said he figured the family would save $1,000 a year under Forbes's plan. "I like his flat tax proposal," said Frick, 45, an accountant for a public utility. "And I would say I'm leaning toward him right now."
Neal reported from Manchester.