Forget terrorism or Social Security. The 2008 election is increasingly turning on $4-per-gallon gas.
John McCain read the tea leaves first, calling for an end to the ban on offshore oil drilling and attacking Barack Obama as ''Dr. No'' on the energy crisis. After weeks of the negative ads and polls showing voters more open to coastal exploration, Obama offered tentative support for a plan in the U.S. Senate allowing drilling as close as 50 miles, putting him at odds with environmentalists and Florida's senators.
On Monday, Obama changed course by saying the U.S. should tap its emergency petroleum reserves.
''He generally supported the maximum wish list of the environmental movement, but now his position on drilling is sticking out like a sore thumb,'' said energy expert Ken Gross of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a conservative think tank. "Republicans are getting traction on drilling, and it could hurt Democrats in the general election.''
''If he does really get behind this new compromise in Congress, I think that would be a huge mistake,'' said Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida. "He still doesn't think drilling is the answer, and if he was latching onto that rhetoric I'd be more concerned.''
Margie Alt of Environment America said in a statement: "We are disappointed to see that Sen. Obama has expressed openness to compromise on offshore drilling and the health of our beaches when oil savings from his proposals for more efficient vehicles would better serve our needs, save consumers money and enhance the economy.''
Both of Florida's senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, have also criticized the plan. But Nelson's spokesman sought to minimize any differences between the senator and the Democratic presumptive nominee, saying they remain "in lockstep.''
''Obama said he would be receptive to drilling but not as a solution, only as part of a compromise,'' said Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin. "They both agree that the long-term solution lies not in oil drilling but in development of alternatives.''
Even Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, a leading McCain supporter who recently embraced limited coastal drilling, said permitting exploration as close as 50 miles from shore would give him a "little angst.''
But he added of Obama's changed position: "He's obviously following the leader, which is Senator McCain, in my view. He's the one who came there first. But kudos to Senator Obama for that. It's important to face facts and realize what's going on and try to help people.''
The candidates' energy platforms remain far apart. McCain wants to lift the ban on offshore drilling altogether and build more nuclear power plants. Obama advocates $150 billion on energy alternatives, requiring cars to be more fuel efficient, and giving families $1,000 ''energy rebates'' by taxing oil companies.
Speaking in Michigan on Monday, Obama proposed selling 70 million barrels from U.S. petroleum stockpiles. President Bush has ruled that out since Hurricane Katrina, saying reserves are only for emergencies.
Obama also praised a bipartisan proposal in Congress that would invest $20 billion in research into renewable fuels but also calls for increased offshore drilling.
''Like all compromises, this one has its drawbacks,'' he said. "While I still don't believe that's a meaningful short-term or long-term solution, I am willing to consider it if it's necessary to actually pass a comprehensive plan.''