McCain, Obama focus on $4 gas

Like two rival filling-station owners in long-bygone price wars, Barack Obama and John McCain keep offering new incentives in hopes of attracting customers battered by $4 gas prices.

McCain is offering a summer break from the 18.4-cent federal gasoline tax and holding out the promise of more offshore drilling to help you drive more cheaply. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee wants to build 45 nuclear reactors to generate electricity. On Monday, he proposed a $300 million government prize to anyone who can develop a superior battery to power cars of the future.

If you pull into the Obama station, he'll promise cash back from the windfall-profits tax he plans to slap on Big Oil. Check the tires? How about promises to go after oil-market speculators who help drive up prices as well as big subsidies for solar, wind, ethanol and other alternative-energy projects? The Democratic presidential candidate likens his energy package to the Kennedy-era space program.

Oil and gas prices that have doubled in the past year have squeezed aside the war in Iraq as the No. 1 issue this election year, and both parties are blaming each other for the price spike – and for apparent congressional paralysis.

Obama and McCain have made high gas prices a top issue in their campaigns and have offered dueling remedies aimed at easing them.

Gas price a key to Nov. vote

In a USA Today-Gallup Poll released Monday, nine in 10 people said energy, including gas prices, would be very or extremely important in deciding their presidential vote in November, tying it with the economy as the top issue. People said Obama would do a better job than McCain on energy issues by 19 percentage points.

Yet energy experts and economists – and even some of the candidates' own advisers – say none of their signature proposals will have any effect on $4 gasoline or $130 a barrel oil in the near term, or even the intermediate term.

Is it open season for pandering?

“I think it is. This is a real pressure point for people every day, every time they fill their tanks. Therefore, politicians can't leave it alone,” said Fred Greenstein, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University.

Both against arctic drilling

The rivals have helped to amplify the longtime ideological divide on energy between Democrats and Republicans – with Obama putting his emphasis on reducing demand and McCain touting increasing domestic production.

Yet, on some long-range issues they're closer together than their current rhetoric would suggest.

Both want to boost alternative energy technology, press for more fuel efficiency and promote more conservation. Both favor expanding the electricity grid, implementing caps on carbon emissions to curb global warming, spend billions on clean-coal research and give nuclear energy a larger role. They differ on offshore drilling, but agree on keeping the ban on oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

McCain and Obama differ on a proposed federal gasoline tax holiday. McCain supports a temporary repeal, saying a respite from the 18.4 cents per gallon tax will help consumers and small businesses. Obama ridicules the plan as a gimmick that would steal money for U.S. highway repair and maintenance without much benefit to consumers. Most economists agree with the Obama camp.

McCain opposes ethanol subsidies – not a popular stand in the nation's heartland – although he mixed his criticism of such subsidies with praise for Iowa farmers during a visit last month. He called them “the most productive, most efficient and the best. And I will open every market in the world to your products.”

Obama – coming from Illinois, the country's second-largest corn-producing state – has supported such subsidies, although he has said the federal government might have to rethink its support for corn ethanol because of surging corn prices which hit the world's poorest people the hardest.

And while Obama is calling for reducing the influence of special interests, some of his top supporters and advisers are tied to the ethanol industry. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota is on the board of several ethanol companies and works at a Washington law firm where he lists advice to clients in renewable energy among his specialties. Obama energy adviser Jason Grumet previously worked at the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan initiative associated with both Daschle and former Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole, a big ethanol backer, according to a story in Monday's editions of The New York Times.

Push for fuel-efficient cars

McCain offered plans Monday to develop more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, drawing a warm welcome from energy analysts but caution from environmentalists, who warned that new vehicles might trade one problem for another if they get off of oil only to plug into coal-burning power plants.

Among his proposals: a $300 million bounty to anyone who develops a powerful, long-lasting car battery to leap past pending hybrid or plug-in cars; tougher enforcement of mileage standards for cars and light trucks; a quicker transition to flex fuel vehicles that can use alcohol-based fuel rather than gasoline; and a $5,000 tax credit to consumers to spark development of a zero-emission car.

Obama also proposes new energy-efficient technology, with a promise to spend $150 billion over 10 years to spark development.

His campaign dismissed McCain's ideas as too little and too much of a shift from the Arizona senator's record to be trusted. Obama aides also questioned the commitment behind McCain's election-year proposals, noting that he'd voted three times in recent years against raising mileage standards. McClatchy Newspapers contributed.