With fuel topping $4 a gallon and oil at a record price, energy now ties the economy in polls as voters' top concern, and the presidential candidates spent the past week trying to outflank each other on an issue that's thinning billfolds from Maine to California.
Their plans share key goals – less reliance on foreign oil, a push for cleaner fuels – but their methods differ sharply.
Senator McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, wants 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 and an end to the federal moratorium on new offshore drilling. He would use market lures – tax rebates for electric cars, a $300 million prize for a better car battery – to promote alternative sources of energy. He would offer motorists immediate relief in the form of a hiatus in the federal gas tax.
Senator Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, opposes new offshore drilling and is wary of nuclear power. He would double auto fuel-efficiency standards within 18 years, subsidize development of ethanol, and force power companies to generate one- quarter of their energy from wind, solar, and other renewable sources by 2025.
An opponent of the gas-tax holiday, Obama favors a "windfall profits" tax on multinational oil companies.
In many ways, their approaches square with party ideology. On the Republican side, financial carrots and a significant role for the private sector. On the Democratic side, subsidies, taxes, and regulation.
But in a departure from GOP predecessors, McCain has refused to cede the "green" label to his Democratic rival. His aides say his plan strikes the right balance among short-term relief for consumers, environmental stewardship, and long-term energy independence. They have taken to calling Obama "Dr. No," portraying him as an obstructionist with too narrow a view of the country's energy woes.
In a speech in Las Vegas Wednesday, McCain trumpeted his plan as a breakthrough after "three decades of partisan paralysis."
He vowed Wednesday to wean America of its dependence on foreign oil by 2025 and gave his proposal no less momentous a title than "The Lexington Project," after the Revolutionary War site where "Americans asserted their independence once before."
Obama last week called McCain's proposals a series of "cheap gimmicks" that "will only increase our oil addiction for another four years."
Obama wants to reduce oil use 35 percent by 2030, pass a law to phase out all incandescent light bulbs, and spend $150 billion over the next decade to develop and market clean-energy technology, from hybrid vehicles to biofuels like ethanol.
The campaigns are keen to the politics of their plans in important swing states. Ethanol is an economic engine in corn-growing Iowa and Minnesota; offshore drilling is a divisive issue in Florida; and nuclear power is a lightning rod in Nevada, home of the federal government's proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.
While Obama's plan is more in keeping with traditional interests in those states, McCain frames his proposals as a boon for consumers and another example of his "straight talk."
"With gasoline running at more than four bucks a gallon, many do not have the luxury of waiting on the far-off plans of futurists and politicians," he said this month in a speech in Houston.
With McCain trailing Obama on most domestic issues in voter opinion polls, the Arizona senator has strived to link his energy plan to national security, where his ratings are higher. "When we buy oil, we are enriching some of our worst enemies," he said last week in Las Vegas, naming the Middle East, Venezuela, and Al Qaeda as beneficiaries of America's dependence on overseas oil.
Obama has said that new oil exploration would not lead to lower prices at the pump – not anytime soon, anyway. "We can't drill our way out of the problems we're facing," he said this month in Florida.
The war of words between the senators escalated throughout the week, with dueling conference calls for reporters and new standalone websites devoted to energy.
Both McCain and Obama support tougher government oversight of energy futures traders whose speculation has been blamed for spikes in oil prices. They also agree that the federal government – with its giant fleet of cars and square miles of office space – should become a model of energy efficiency.
But where Obama sees stricter standards as key to a more energy independent and efficient America, McCain looks to domestic oil exploration and entrepreneurialism.
"I won't support subsidizing every alternative, or tariffs that restrict the healthy competition that stimulates innovation and lowers costs," McCain said in a speech last year. "But I'll encourage the development of infrastructure and market growth necessary for these products to compete, and then let consumers choose the winners."
McCain backs a tax credit of up to $5,000 for consumers who buy cars with low- to zero-carbon emissions, and proposes a $300 million prize for the first person to invent a battery for plug-in cars that "leap frogs" current technology and supplies power at 30 percent of today's costs.
In Las Vegas last week, Obama ridiculed the battery prize as a "gimmick."
"When John F. Kennedy decided that we were going to put a man on the moon," Obama said, "he didn't put a bounty out for some rocket scientist to win – he put the full resources of the United States government behind the project and called on the ingenuity and innovation of the American people."
Though McCain's environmental record draws more praise than some Republicans', most environmental advocates have been cool to his energy ideas.
"He's a bit of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," says Navin Nayak, a policy analyst at the League of Conservation Voters in Washington. "The same day he releases an ad touting his commitment to fight global warming, he's in Houston calling for lifting a 20-year moratorium on offshore drilling."
Karen Harbert, executive vice president of the Washington-based Institute for 21st Century Energy, an arm of the US Chamber of Commerce, says enlarging the domestic oil and gas supply has to be part of any solution to energy troubles in the US. "To keep America's economy thriving, we will need all types of new energy sources," Ms. Harbert, a former energy adviser in the Bush administration, said in an e-mail. "There is no single silver bullet."
Energy: Election 2008
A look at some differences between the presidential candidates on energy:
NEW OFFSHORE DRILLING
McCain: Wants to build 45 new nuclear plants by 2030
Obama: Opposes construction of new reactors until safer methods of nuclear waste disposal are developed
SUMMER GAS-TAX HOLIDAY
ETHANOL SUBSIDIES AND MANDATES
McCain: $300 million prize for inventor of better electric car battery, tax rebates of up to $5,000 for buyers of cars with low-to-zero carbon emissions
Obama: Would require power companies to generate a quarter of their electricity from wind, solar, and other renewable sources by 2025; would spend $150 billion over the next decade on research and development of clean-energy technology