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Mr. Nelson likened Mr. McCain to defeated Republican Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo. The congressman from California lost his seat in 2006 in part because environmental groups targeted him for pushing coastal drilling and for being tied to oil donations.

“This is the Richard Pombo plan pulled off the shelf,” Mr. Nelson said.

Conservatives and advocates for expanded drilling also accused Mr. McCain of hypocrisy, saying his new position leaves him supporting local decision-making in some cases, and opposing it in others.

“If it is proper to grant the coastal states authority over offshore energy production - and we believe it is - then it is also proper to grant Alaskans the same authority over the state and federal lands on ANWR´s frozen coastal plain,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research. “The people of Alaska have been asking Washington for this right for more than two decades.”

Mr. McCain defended the distinction.

“Quite rightly, I believe, we confer a special status on some areas of our country that are best left undisturbed. When America set aside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we called it a “refuge” for a reason,” he said.

Republicans compared the senator from Illinois to Mr. Carter on energy and to 2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry for the terrorism comments.

Mr. Kerry, of Massachusetts, was attacked repeatedly for saying terrorism was a law-enforcement matter, and McCain national security adviser Randy Scheunemann leveled a similar charge against Mr. Obama, citing the “September 10th mind-set.”

“He does not understand the nature of the enemies we face,” he said.

Mr. Kerry, in a conference call on behalf of Mr. Obama Tuesday, said Mr. McCain offers his own failed policy and that Mr. Obama is a breakthrough. He said Mr. Obama’s position that he would unilaterally bomb a target in Pakistan shows that the Democrat has a better understanding of the post-Sept. 11 world.