McCain takes risk with energy stance

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – For decades it has been a bipartisan political staple – the jaunt to the beaches of Santa Barbara to profess opposition to oil drilling, near where the images of dying sea life and waters despoiled by a massive 1969 oil spill helped fuel the modern environmental movement.

With visits here and elsewhere, Republicans Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger used their environmental credentials to win California’s governor’s office. George Bush the elder announced his support for a delay in oil drilling leases en route to victory in November 1988, when he became the last Republican to win the state in a presidential contest.

John McCain returned to Santa Barbara this week not to assert his opposition to offshore drilling – as he did when he ran in 2000 – but to make the calculated gamble that high gas prices have trumped voters’ desire to protect the environment.

His newfound support for allowing states to decide whether to drill offshore, announced last week in Texas, carries risk. Having spent much of his campaign trying to distance himself from the current President Bush and Republican orthodoxy, McCain has changed his tune to theirs on a hugely symbolic issue that has long helped motivate the independent voters whose support he needs to claim the White House.

Diana Cuttrell of Santa Barbara is one of them, and she fiercely opposes McCain’s new stance.

“It’s not going to solve the problem,” she said of McCain’s proposal to lift the federal moratorium on sea drilling. “It’s a Band-Aid, basically. It’s just pretty idiotic.”

In a Monday visit to Fresno, 160 miles northeast of Santa Barbara, McCain did not bring up offshore drilling, instead emphasizing alternative energy sources such as alcohol fuels and announcing a $300 million challenge to build an electric car battery. In response to a question, he said he still does not favor drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, because it is pristine. He declined, when pressed, to say whether the California coast was any less so but argued that offshore drilling was safe.

“I envision they would be somewhat further off shore but that would be again a decision by the people of this state,” said McCain, who has said his views changed because of the effect gas prices are having on everyday Americans and concerns about U.S. dependence on foreign powers.

McCain plans to take part in an environmental panel here today with Schwarzenegger, who spent much of his election runs touting hydrogen-based cars. Schwarzenegger, who endorses McCain, forcefully brushed aside the unofficial GOP nominee’s position last week.

“We made a decision awhile back to say no drilling off our shores in California, and we are serious about that and we’re not going to change that, no matter who is recommending other things,” Schwarzenegger said, pressing for alternative fuel solutions.

California has much more virulently opposed offshore drilling than have other states. Political analysts, including Republicans, said McCain’s stance suggests a trade-off – winning votes in key Midwest states on the issue at the cost of losing them in California.

“McCain is essentially conceding what would have been an uphill fight in California in order to strengthen his opportunities in states like Michigan and Ohio,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican consultant who worked for McCain in 2000. He added: “Whether this plays in Santa Barbara is much less important than how it plays in Columbus, Ohio.”

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