DENVER — John McCain campaigned Wednesday in Colorado for the seventh time since becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, trumpeting an energy policy that appears to be resonating in this closely contested state.
On the stump and in a new television ad, McCain attacked Democratic candidate Barack Obama, accusing him of preferring to be an international celebrity over trying to lower gasoline prices at home.
"He says the high price of gasoline doesn't bother him, only that it rose too quickly," McCain told employees of Denver's Wagner Equipment, which sells and rents machines used in construction. "We ought to start drilling for more oil at home, including offshore. Senator Obama opposes that."
McCain's campaign unveiled a television ad attacking Obama called "Celeb" that will air in Colorado and other battleground states including Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.
"He's the biggest celebrity in the world," a soft-voiced female announcer says as shots of bad-girl tabloid celebrities Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and Obama flash across the screen. "But is he ready to lead? With gas prices soaring, Obama says no to offshore drilling. And says he'll raise taxes on electricity. Higher taxes, more foreign oil, that's the real Obama."
McCain's blasts came as he's battling to hold on to Colorado, a Republican state in recent presidential elections that's become increasingly Democratic in other races. President Bush won the state twice, defeating former Vice President Al Gore 51-42 percent and getting by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., by 52-47 percent.
But Democrats have taken over the governor's mansion, the state legislature and one U.S. Senate seat, and make up a majority of Colorado's delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sensing an opportunity to complete Colorado's flip, the party awarded Denver its national convention this year. Obama has set his sights on the state, with its upscale, young, ecologically conscious voters and growing Hispanic population.
"You can make the argument that Colorado is one of the two or three most important states in the country," said Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute. "If McCain holds on to Colorado, you could argue that Obama would have trouble in Nevada and New Mexico. He (Obama) has to flip Ohio or get the votes out in the West. They've looked at Colorado and the West as a breakthrough area for them."
McCain and Colorado Republicans aren't ceding Colorado without a fight. "I have to win here if I'm going to be the next president of the United States," McCain said.
In an election year where the economy is lousy and Bush, the titular head of the party, is poison, McCain and fellow Republicans feel they've found an issue that's resonating with Colorado voters: rising energy prices.
With gasoline around $4 a gallon, Colorado voters are becoming more and more receptive to drilling for oil offshore and on federal land preserves such as Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, steps that McCain advocates and Obama opposes.
Several analysts say McCain's focus on energy issues has helped improve his standing in Colorado. Obama leads McCain 47-45.3 percent on average, according to a collection of Colorado polls crunched by the Web site RealClearPolitics. But a Quinnipiac-University of Colorado poll released last week showed McCain ahead 46-44 percent, after a June Quinnipiac poll had Obama leading 49-44 percent.
"Democrats have been dominating the issue, arguing renewables," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent Colorado pollster. "When gas hit $4 a gallon, all everybody cares about now is (gasoline) supply. We're pragmatic people in Colorado. The price of gas is a very integral part of our lifestyle, our well-being and our health. ANWR has shot up 10 points; everything moved beyond the margin of error, even among Obama's constituency, younger voters."
Brown said roughly one in 10 voters in Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin said they now favored drilling because of energy prices.
"They support Obama, but with voters saying that the energy issue is now more important to their presidential vote than is the war in Iraq, this group represents an opportunity for the Republican," Brown said.
Obama took aim Wednesday at McCain and other Republicans in a forum at Springfield, Mo., calling Republican economic policies "reckless" and vowing that his plan to "restore balance and fairness to our economy so it works for all Americans" includes help for "folks who are having trouble filling up their gas tank."
He pledged to give those people "an energy rebate," though he offered no details.
He blasted Republicans for being too friendly with big oil companies. "We can go another four years without truly solving our energy crisis; we can choose my opponent's plan to give $4 billion in tax breaks to oil companies at a time when they're making record profits," Obama said, "or we can finally make America energy-independent so that we're less vulnerable to oil price shocks and $4 a gallon gas.
"We can invest in renewable energies like wind power, solar power and the next-generation biofuels. And we can create up to 5 million new, green jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced. That's what we can choose to do in this election."
Bush echoed his party's pitch Wednesday, denouncing congressional Democrats for their refusal to open offshore areas to drilling. He'll travel to West Virginia on Thursday to make a similar plea for increased use of coal to help address energy needs.
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(David Lightman contributed to this article from Washington.)