Democrats try energy issue to trump Bush

Presidential hopefuls fashion policies that will differentiate them from the GOP.

Democratic presidential candidates are focusing on energy policy as a top issue in the 2004 campaign, in an effort to sharpen environmental credentials and stake out contrasting positions with President Bush.

With White House hopefuls rolling out position papers on matters from healthcare to taxes, candidates are highlighting the need to wean the US from foreign oil, calling for sharp reductions in the use of fossil fuels and the development of alternative, clean energy sources. Many are framing their proposals as new scientific quests, with vast potential: This week, Rep. Dick Gephardt outlined his "New Apollo Project," following Sen. John Kerry's "New Manhattan Project" and Sen. Joseph Lieberman's "Declaration of Energy Independence."

Polls show Democrats enjoy a big advantage over Republicans on environmental issues - but that those issues tend to rank fairly low on the public's list of priorities. But energy policy may prove an exception because of its link to the war on terror: Reducing US dependence on Middle Eastern oil can now be seen as a matter of national security.

Congressman Gephardt made this link in his speech Tuesday, saying, "Profits from Saudi oil families literally helped to fund the ungodly attacks on Sept. 11." Similarly, Senator Kerry last week declared: "If we care about the national security of America, we can settle for nothing less than the energy security of America."

Still, analysts say Democrats may have trouble getting much momentum on the issue, since the president has been stressing the need for energy independence, as well. There are clear differences in approach: Mr. Bush's solution focuses primarily on ramping up domestic production of oil, gas, and coal. But he also encourages conservation, and promotes some new technologies, such as hydrogen-fueled cars. As a result, Democrats will have to persuade the public not only of the overall importance of energy independence, but of the relative environmental and societal benefits of their plans.

"Both parties will try to tie energy policies to international threats and terrorism," says William Lowry, an expert on environmental politics at St. Louis's Washington University. But while "they may have the same diagnosis, they draw very different prescriptions."

Politicians have tried to address energy policy for decades with little success, say analysts, in part because of the power of conflicting interest groups.

The first Persian Gulf War raised similar national discussions about US reliance on Middle Eastern oil, and even led to a new Energy Policy Act in Congress. "But it didn't really change our fundamental reliance on fossil fuels for energy needs," says Mr. Lowry.

Two years ago, as California faced a major electricity crisis, the Bush administration created an energy task force, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, to form a new national energy policy. But the task force's blueprint became mired in controversy over the alleged influence of industry executives on the plan.

Still, the links now being drawn between foreign oil and terrorism may give energy policy new potency as a campaign issue.

"There's more of a groundswell this time around," says Dan Vicuna, a spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, which is holding a forum for the candidates next week. "Voters are making the connection between the amount of money they're spending at the pumps and where that money is going."

A winning issue?

Many Democrats see the president as vulnerable on energy issues because of his administration's ties to the oil industry - both Bush and Mr. Cheney are former oil executives. In his speech last week, for instance, Kerry described the US as having "an energy policy of big oil, by big oil and for big oil." By not addressing America's fundamental reliance on oil, Democrats charge, the president weakens the US in the fight against terror.

But this may prove a difficult argument to make, since Bush is advocating energy independence as well, for the same reasons. "We need an energy policy that makes us less dependent on foreign sources of energy," he told a New Jersey audience this week, adding that the current natural gas shortage can be attributed to the lack of federal policy encouraging gas exploration.

A version of the president's energy plan, combining tax incentives for energy companies with some conservation measures, passed the House this spring, and he has been urging the Senate to move as well.

Gephardt and others are "making political speeches while the president's busy pushing billions of dollars for new hydrogen fuel cell technology," says Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

A face in the crowd

The energy proposals released by Democratic candidates are largely similar. Most seek to reduce domestic oil consumption through a combination of tax credits and research into new technologies, although they differ slightly in the details. Kerry's plan, for example, calls for stricter fuel-efficiency standards for all cars, while Lieberman's would limit the overall number of barrels of oil used per day through a system of "credits" auto manufacturers could swap.

The general agreement between the candidates could also make it more difficult for any contender to stand out from the field or gain much traction.

"All these guys are Democrats for a reason: They agree on a lot of things," says Erik Smith, a Gephardt spokesman. Still, he admits, "It's certainly hard in a field of Democrats to be identified solely with one issue, when Democrats so often talk about the same issues."

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