GOP staking out offshore drilling as major campaign push

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 3, 2008 

ST. PAUL — You might be forgiven for concluding the mantra of the Republican party is "Let's drill!''

From President Bush's televised remarks at the GOP convention to the plastic ID tags the delegates hang around their necks, offshore energy exploration appears to be a top priority.

In fact, "energy independence and lower gas prices'' outrank both "building a strong economy and secure nation'' and "fiscal accountability'' on the cheat sheet of "Republican Pocket Principles'' some delegates wear on lanyards.

With polls suggesting that voters may be increasingly receptive to lifting the ban on offshore drilling, the GOP believes it has a winning strategy — even in Florida, which has long been viewed as staunchly opposed to offshore oil and gas exploration.

Sarah Palin's selection as John McCain's running mate has served to underscore the significance Republicans are putting on opening new areas to energy exploration. As governor of Alaska, Palin championed opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling — something even McCain has opposed.

"Our opponents say, again and again, that drilling will not solve all of America's energy problems — as if we all didn't know that already,'' Palin said Wednesday as she accepted the nomination. "But the fact that drilling won't solve every problem is no excuse to do nothing at all....We need American energy resources, brought to you by American ingenuity, and produced by American workers.''

The stage was set Tuesday when President Bush told the delegates McCain would "lift the ban on drilling for America's offshore oil today.''

He was seconded by House Minority Leader John Boehner, who used a Tuesday night speech to the delegates to rap House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for refusing to take up GOP calls to lift the congressional ban on drilling off the U.S. coast:

"It's the No. 1 issue on the minds of the American people,'' said the Ohio Republican, who kept up the pressure Wednesday with a press conference highlighting a protest Republicans have staged at the Capitol since Congress left for its summer recess. "We've not taken a big step unless we're willing to explore for American gas and oil.''

The talk comes as gas prices have pinched pocketbooks, prompting McCain in June to drop his opposition to lifting the ban on offshore oil drilling. Two months later, Barack Obama, too, changed tack, suggesting he'd be open to drilling as part of a more sweeping energy package.

Democrats who accuse the GOP of acting in concert with the oil industry say lifting the ban would do nothing to affect gas prices; any resources wouldn't be available for years.

Drilling takes center stage in several of McCain's ads and is highlighted in Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart's first campaign ad.

Diaz-Balart, who faces a significant re-election challenge, began talking about supporting a compromise on drilling more than two years ago. He said he was excoriated for warning that the state needed to broker an agreement with pro-drilling advocates who wanted to lift the ban and drill miles from shore.

Now, he says, he looks positively prescient.

"I remember being dismissed by every newspaper in Florida and now everyone is realizing it was a responsible, forward-looking approach,'' Diaz-Balart said. "I wear the editorials against me as a badge of honor.''

His challenger, former Miami Dade Democratic party chief Joe Garcia, dismisses the approach.

"Everyone knows drilling alone will not solve our dependence on foreign oil,'' said Garcia. "It's a false choice.''

The push for fuel has fractured Florida's once-united congressional delegation, leaving Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen the sole GOP hold out. Ros-Lehtinen, who also faces a serious Democratic challenger, said Wednesday she's resisted Bush and McCain's calls to lift the congressional ban because she doesn't believe it will affect gas prices — and could damage the region's marine environment.

"Drilling promises something to the people that isn't going to come true,'' said Ros- Lehtinen. "It's not going to bring down the price of gas at the pump tomorrow or ever.''

But she acknowledged her hands-off stance is no longer as popular as it once was, even in her congressional district, which includes the Florida Keys.

"Five years ago, three years ago, we were all united,'' she said, referring to Florida's congressional delegation that successfully fended off efforts to drill offshore. "I'm as upset as anyone over high prices, but it's not worth what would be a risky venture.''

Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has counseled Republicans about the power of language, urging them to drop the term "estate tax'' in favor of "death tax,''has suggested Republicans do the same with oil drilling. Speaking to Florida Republicans at a breakfast Tuesday, Luntz told the delegates to talk about "energy independence'' … rather than oil drilling.

"The public is fed up with our dependence on Middle Eastern oil,'' he said.

The advice appears to have stuck.

"There's a whole different context to the oil debate now,'' said Miami Republican Rep. David Rivera. "People see oil independence as promoting American national and economic security.''

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