WASHINGTON — Four dollar-a-gallon gas has done something that few Republicans thought possible just a few months ago: given them hope.
United behind a renewed push for offshore oil drilling, Republican members of Congress and the party's presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, think they have found their best political issue of the 2008 campaign.
McCain strategists and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill say the issue, which polls suggest Americans favor by healthy margins, lets Republicans demonstrate their plans to address the anger over high gas prices as well as the broader economic distress that many voters feel.
Because most Democrats, including Sen. Barack Obama, are opposed to increased drilling, McCain and the GOP have already begun casting their rivals as unconcerned about gas prices and unwilling to wean the country from foreign oil.
"The failure of Sen. Obama to understand the need to increase domestic production is just stunning, and that's going to be a real hurdle for him to overcome, because everybody gets it," said Nancy Pfotenhauer, a senior McCain adviser.
Obama aides say the Democrat supports legislation that would encourage oil companies to drill in offshore areas that are already approved but not used. Republicans say their embrace of more domestic drilling and a dramatic increase in funding for the development of renewable fuels puts them squarely in line with voters, who polls show support both policy initiatives, especially when linked to concern about years of gas at $4 a gallon or more.
In a recent CNN poll, 73 percent of those surveyed said they favor increased offshore drilling for oil and natural gas. A Pew Research poll taken at the end of June found 60 percent saying that "developing new sources of energy" should be the priority over the 34 percent who favored "protecting the environment." The Pew poll also found voters split between exploring for new energy and expanding conservation.
Democrats say voter support for drilling plummets when surveys note that drilling will not produce new, usable gas for years and would not immediately affect gas prices at the pump.
The risks for Republicans became clear this week when a McCain visit to an offshore oil rig was quickly scuttled in the face of Hurricane Dolly and a massive oil tanker spill in the Mississippi River in New Orleans.
McCain's support for offshore drilling also threatens to unite environmentalists against him, after he spent months portraying himself as a friend of the environment by endorsing the basic tenets of those who want to wage war on global warming.
McCain and his advisers say the safety record for deep-sea oil rigs is very good. The oil slick in the Mississippi River was caused by a collision between a tanker and a barge, not a leak at an oil rig, they point out.