Conventional wisdom has put offshore drilling off-limits for Florida politicians, but polls released this month appear to have changed that decades-old line of thought, finding that voters in the state support drilling and will reward a candidate who embraces it.
With gas prices at record highs, the polls show the political calculation on energy has changed, but so far in the presidential election only Sen. John McCain has changed with it, nimbly adjusting his stances to embrace a series of proposed solutions.
On Tuesday, the presumptive Republican nominee said he will make the federal government's automobile fleets and offices greener, and earlier this week he proposed a $300 million prize for the inventor of a next-generation car battery. That follows last week's call for 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030 and a position reversal in which he embraced expanded offshore drilling for oil and gas.
"Somebody's doing their polling work," said Michael McKenna, a Republican pollster and energy strategist who said Mr. McCain has now positioned himself to be "in favor of anything, except for drilling in" the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Meanwhile Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee, has stood firm, arguing that the problem is U.S. demand, not supply, and calling for a reordering of American policies. In his own speech Tuesday, he rejected each of Mr. McCain's new proposals, saying drilling doesn't help lower prices, nuclear energy has environmental drawbacks and the innovation prize is a gimmick that doesn't match the real need.
"When John F. Kennedy decided that we were going to put a man on the moon, he didn't put a bounty out for some rocket scientist to win; he put the full resources of the United States government behind the project and called on the ingenuity and innovation of the American people," Mr. Obama said. "That's the kind of effort we need to achieve energy independence in this country, and nothing less will do."
The debate is spilling into Congress, where the House on Tuesday failed to pass a bill to ban "price gouging" and "unconscionable" prices. President Bush had threatened to veto the bill anyway, but Democrats were unable to muster the two-thirds vote required to pass the measure without amendment.
On the presidential stage, Democrats are faring better, with Mr. Obama winning the issue - voters trust him over Mr. McCain on the issue by 19 percentage points in the latest Gallup-USA Today poll. But on the specific issue of more drilling, Mr. McCain is trouncing Mr. Obama.
Both a national Zogby poll and a Florida Rasmussen Reports poll show tremendous support for drilling, including among Democrats. But they are also willing to go further than even Mr. McCain, with the Zogby poll finding a majority support drilling in ANWR.
Pollsters say voters' attitudes are almost certainly driven by record prices.
In his energy plan, Mr. Obama has proposed increased fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and $150 billion in investments to develop alternative energy sources. But he also calls for punishing energy companies, proposing a windfall profits tax and a penalty that would apply to every oil company currently holding an unused lease for drilling on government land.
"If that compels them to drill, we'll get more oil. If it doesn't, the fees will go toward more investment in renewable sources of energy," he said.
Daniel Seligman, an energy consultant and clean energy advocate, said that despite Mr. McCain's recent maneuvering, the most striking aspect of the debate is how close both men are on the big questions of merging environmental policy and energy policy. Both support a cap-and-trade approach to carbon emissions, a low carbon fuel standard to force alternative energy into the transportation market, and the promotion of renewable and alternative energy. Both oppose drilling in ANWR.
"There's kind of a consensus about thinking about energy that cuts across ideological boundaries, but there are nuances that separate the two," said Mr. Seligman, the former national campaign director of the Apollo Alliance, which advocates for a federal program to push for alternative energy solutions.
He said both candidates bring serious plans to the table, though he gave the edge to Mr. Obama for focusing on specifics, such as translating new technology from the lab to the marketplace.
"Things like solar [photovoltaics], things like wind, were invented in American laboratories but have been commercialized by the Germans and the Japanese and the Danes. They've made money off these things because they took them from the lab to the market, and that's what Obama's proposing to do," he said.
Mr. McCain on Tuesday said his proposals lay out "a plan of action," as compared with "Dr. No," as his campaign has taken to calling Mr. Obama.
Mr. McKenna said in rejecting any further use of conventional energy supplies that Mr. Obama is matching his party's stance.
"You can't find a Democrat who's in favor of producing energy from actual sources that exist right now," Mr. McKenna said. "They're always in favor of something that's going to happen in the future. That's wonderful. That's not what the American people want right now."
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