An old-fashioned political blunder threw Sen. John McCain off message Monday, distracting from a well-planned effort to drive home his advantage on energy policy with a proposed $300 million innovation prize for the next-generation car battery.
Mr. McCain, the Republicans’ presumed presidential nominee, distanced himself from top adviser Charlie Black’s comment in the upcoming issue of Fortune magazine that if a terrorist attack happened this year, “certainly it would be a big advantage” for Mr. McCain.
“I cannot imagine why he would say it,” Mr. McCain told reporters. “It’s not true. I’ve worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States of America. My record is very clear.”
Mr. Black told reporters traveling with the campaign that he regretted the remark, according to the Associated Press. Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign called the comment a “big disgrace,” and Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, said that by even thinking of an attack in political terms, Mr. Black was practicing “the worst of the Rove-Bush fear playbook.”
It was a distraction from what had appeared to be a promising line of attack from Mr. McCain on energy prices in the past week. Polls have shown that his call for more drilling, including in formerly off-limits areas in the outer continental shelf, is popular, even in places such as Florida where the idea was once anathema.
Seeking to capitalize, Mr. McCain on Monday called for a contest with a $300 million prize - “one dollar for every man, woman and child in the U.S.” - for developing the next generation of car battery to boost the desirability of hybrid or electric cars.
“In the quest for alternatives to oil, our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure,” he told an audience in Fresno, Calif. “From now on, we will encourage heroic efforts in engineering, and we will reward the greatest success.”
Mr. McCain also said that as president, he would deploy tax credits to encourage manufacturers to make, and consumers to buy, low or zero carbon-emissions automobiles. The lower the emissions, the higher the credit would be, he said.
Democrats ridiculed the plan, saying Mr. McCain is late to buy into government incentives for better energy. They pointed to his votes against promoting hybrid vehicles and increasing fuel-efficiency standards.
“How can Americans trust John McCain when he continually changes his positions during the election year?” said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney. “Last time he ran for president, McCain campaigned against offshore drilling. This time, McCain says he supports President Bush’s offshore drilling agenda. After trying to position himself as an Arnold Schwarzenegger Republican a few weeks ago, John McCain is now proposing a Bush policy that even McCain’s own economic adviser admits won’t reduce the price of gas for decades.”
Though he still rules out drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Mr. McCain reversed course and says he now wants to expand offshore drilling, including sweetening the incentives to get states to agree. He also has proposed a gas tax holiday to lower prices immediately.
Mr. Obama’s campaign accused Mr. McCain of seeking political opportunity rather than solutions.
“The gas tax holiday is the perfect storm of political pander,” said Jason Grumet, an Obama energy adviser.
Mr. Obama has opposed both a tax holiday and expanded drilling. He argues that technology can solve the long-term problems of cost and environmental impact. In the short term, he said, Congress must crack down on illicit profits for energy companies.
This weekend, he proposed closing what he called the “Enron loophole,” which he said allows speculators to operate outside the purview of government regulators.