BLOOMSBURG, Pa. — Voters in this rugged slice of small-town Pennsylvania, where even going for groceries can mean a 10-mile trip, fall into two camps: those who want the government to find more oil and those who don't.
Put another way, they either like John McCain, who got applause in Wilkes-Barre this week for touting offshore drilling and suspending the federal gasoline tax, or they prefer Barack Obama and his plan to expedite development of alternative energy sources. Whichever camp they fit into, when you ask people what's on their minds, energy is what's on their minds.
Voters do agree on this: "People here drive a long way to get anywhere," said Ryan Stalker, a Lackawanna College administrator. They also tend to live in older homes, where heating and cooling costs can soar. And they want help — meaning energy dwarfs every other political issue in this key part of this potential swing state.
McCain's forces include people like Marissa Stopyra, a Hawley homemaker, who can make just one 19-mile trip a week this summer with her 5- and 9-year-olds to Promised Land State Park, instead of the usual three or four weekly visits.
She and others favor Republican presidential candidate McCain's plan to drop the 18.4 cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline until Labor Day. Economists generally deride the idea, and Obama has called it a gimmick.
But to people like Nick Welch, a New Milford graphic artist who commutes 27 miles a day, "up and down hills," as he put it, any break would help.
"I know it's a finger in the dike," he said, "but it's something."
"It would at least give people some break for the summer," added Cheryl Sempa Radkiewicz, a Clarks Summit teacher who drives throughout three counties to help special needs children.
These folks don't want to study all the analyses that suggest drilling won't produce much oil, if any, for at least seven to 10 years. They think that McCain's ideas will help both now and in the future.
"If we drill now, maybe my children won't have to pay $10 a gallon some day," said Keith Davis, a chef in Coplay.
Alternative sources are fine, added Jeff Cramer. But as he stood outside the quiet athletic equipment store he manages in Bethlelem's Westgate Mall, he made it clear that he needs help now.
"At the end of the month, when you have money left over, you would come here and buy clothing or outdoor equipment," he said. "But with these gas prices most people don't have that leftover money. We need short-term help. We need to be looking here for more fuel and we need to get the tax down."
Supporters of Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, think such logic explains why this country's mired in this energy mess.
Drilling offers no guarantees and "will just cause more environmental damage," said Katie Simpson, a Bethlehem retail clerk. "You've got to go green."
She's driving less to friends' homes and even to her grandparents 30 miles away. Like others, she finds the inconvenience a small price to pay if the government can find new ways to develop energy.
"All that more drilling will do is let people use more gasoline. And we don't even know what's out there," argued Michael Finelli, a Bethlehem violinist.
Some people here who live in older homes want the government to provide financial incentives for alternative energy.
"People need some kind of tax break, but they need it for their homes," said Michelle Peguero, a Bloomsburg physical education teacher. "There are no incentives for people to go with solar power."
She lives in a historic home, and last winter put polar fleece blankets over her windows to keep out the cold.
To Garry Wamser, a Bloomsburg attorney, setting a 10-year goal for an ambitious alternative energy program, as Obama has done, makes sense.
"You have to define a reasonable goal," Wamser said, one that will wean the nation off foreign oil. Bloomsburg Mayor Dan Knorr agreed, noting "I don't mind the price of gas going up," because it will push people toward accepting new technology.
That's hardly a universally held view here, which is why McCain has been filling the local airwaves with ads touting his energy plan, while Obama's supporters are holding strategy meetings in local coffee shops and community centers to listen to ideas.
Stopyra, who's spending a lot of time at home with her children this summer, wants help now. "I'm a middle class American and I feel I'm being squeezed," she said.
But Peguero looks at her home and sees a bright, and less expensive, future.
"Everyone's roof," she said, "can become another power plant."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008