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Drilling Pennsylvania for votes Oil is focus of McCain's bid to overtake Keystone State

About this series: Jerry Zremski of The News Washington Bureau travels to five battleground states critical to the presidential election to talk with voters and experts about issues that matter to voters in Western New York.


Seconds after Sen. John McCain mentioned reopening America's coasts to oil and gas drilling, the shouts from the crowd erupted.

"Drill, baby, drill!" the voters in this Pittsburgh suburb cried.

Even though the price of gasoline has dropped like a Rob Johnson pass in recent weeks, the summertime price spike is still one of McCain's signature issues -- especially in this Democrat-leaning state where McCain is drilling harder for votes than he is anywhere else.

If you believe the polls, he's digging a lot of dry holes. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows Democrat Barack Obama with an 11-point lead in the Keystone State.

But with his campaign flagging in smaller onetime GOP strongholds such as Virginia and Colorado, McCain keeps plugging away in his fight for Pennsylvania's 21 electoral votes, hoping the state's big rural population will counter Obama's strength in the state's heavily populated southeast corner.

"He's clearly making a stand in an environment that doesn't seem all that welcoming for a Republican presidential candidate," said Christopher P. Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. "But he needs a win in a big state. It's big risk, big reward."

Last week showed McCain taking that big risk in a big way, investing a full day in three Pennsylvania campaign stops and then sending his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to the Pittsburgh area on Thursday.

At each stop, the GOP candidates ripped into Obama as they have been doing for weeks -- while touting their energy plans as the centerpiece of their effort to rebuild the American economy.

"When I'm president, we'll drill offshore and we'll drill now," McCain said at his rally in Moon Township. "We'll invest in clean coal technology . . . We'll lower the cost of energy in months and create millions of new jobs. America, I promise you that."

The promise of new offshore oil drilling is a new one for McCain, who opposed drilling until this year's run-up in gas prices.

Obama, too, has flip-flopped on the issue, going along this fall as Congress let a long-standing ban on new drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific expire.

That ban is expected to resurface in the new Congress, though, and Obama has warned that offshore drilling is no answer for America's energy needs.

"We're going to have to explore new ways to get more oil, and that includes offshore drilling," Obama said during the presidential debate Oct. 7. "But we have 3 percent of the world's oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world's oil. So what that means is that we can't simply drill our way out of the problem."

McCain concedes that point and also proposes a renewed focus on nuclear power, clean coal technologies and alternative energy sources. Meanwhile, Obama says safety concerns could stand in the way of more nuclear plants and focuses his energy plans on alternative energy sources.

But drilling remains the focus of the energy debate on the campaign trail, which isn't surprising, given its popularity both in the polls and in Pennsylvania.

>Majority favor drilling

A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed that Americans back offshore drilling by a margin of 62 to 28 percent.

Obama's reluctance to fully embrace offshore drilling "is one of the reasons I don't agree with his economic plan," said Holly Sambol, 40, a McCain supporter from Ohioville, Pa.

The electrical company that she and her husband run was spending $1,000 month on gasoline this summer just to keep its vans on the road, deeply cutting into its profits, Sambol said.

But now prices have fallen, and Sambol speculated that one of the reasons might be the market's psychological reaction to the lifting of the drilling ban.

And even a significant number of Obama supporters agree that lifting the ban is a good idea.

"If we have the oil, we should drill for it," said Joseph Puskarich, 53, an Obama supporter from Aliquippa, north of Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately for McCain, offshore drilling might be popular, but in political terms, it's low-octane.

Back when Muhlenberg College started its presidential tracking poll in late September, a measly 4 percent of voters mentioned gasoline prices as the most important issue. And in the month that followed, that number has dwindled to less than one percent.

"In the last two polls, it's just fallen off the map," Borick said.

In contrast, the percentage of people ranking the economy as the top issue in Pennsylvania has skyrocketed to 53 percent. And it's the issue that dozens of Pennsylvania voters wanted to talk about during interviews last week.

"People are worked up. People are frustrated. People are angry," said Coral Reid, 63, an Obama supporter from the Philadelphia suburb of West Chester. "They're desperate to improve their situation."

Kate Campbell, a longtime independent from the Philadelphia suburb of Exton who is now volunteering for Obama, said the economy is just one of the issues that's troubling her.

"I'm just appalled by what's happened in the last eight years," said Campbell, 57, who added that McCain "sold his soul out to the oil industry" by flip-flopping on drilling.

>Double Democrats

Reid and Campbell are part of a demographic tidal wave that appears to be working in Obama's favor in Pennsylvania.

Democrats now outnumber Republicans by 1.2 million in the state, which is double the level of four years ago.

"Perhaps most ominous for Republicans, the greater Philadelphia suburbs now decide state elections -- and those suburbs increasingly are registering and voting for Democrats," G. Terry Madonna, the head of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College of Lancaster, wrote recently.

Despite those Democratic gains, Pennsylvania political experts such as Thomas Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, said the polls may overestimate Obama's support here.

For one thing, many of the newly registered Democrats are college students and young adults who are less likely to show up to vote, Baldino said. For another, the "Pennsylvania T" -- what's left of the state if you culled off the big urban areas in its southern corners -- is deeply conservative.

For proof, just listen to what Daniel Gordon, of Wellsboro, in north-central Pennsylvania, has to say about Obama.

"I see Obama's tax plan as one that will cost us the most money with second- and third-generation welfare people receiving nice increases and still not needing to work," said Gordon, 66, who also criticized Obama for a lack of experience and dubious connections in Chicago.

>The race issue

Meanwhile, Buffalo native Oliver L. Poppenberg Sr. of Sewickley, north of Pittsburgh, calls McCain "the only demonstrated American loyalist who's running," and criticizes Obama for his ties to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Such sentiments are by no means uncommon in Pennsylvania, and they're one reason why Baldino wonders if the polls might be off and that Pennsylvania might host a surprise gusher of votes for McCain.

"You have a lot of traditional conservative Democrats here," Baldino said.

They're voters like Mary Smolinski, 68, an undecided Democrat who just can't warm to Obama.

"I think he's sarcastic, arrogant, and I especially don't like his wife," said Smolinski, of the Pittsburgh suburb of Crescent. "She said she wasn't proud to be an American until her husband ran for president."

Mona Morton, the secretary of the Democratic Party in Mercer County, in northwest Pennsylvania, has heard similar things about Obama.

Asked why some Democrats in her county are reluctant to support the party's nominee, Morton whispered: "He's black."

Prominent Democrats like Gov. Ed Rendell and Rep. John Murtha also have said Obama's race could hurt him in this aging, largely white state.

But if you believe the polls, any votes cast on the basis of race will be washed away by a tide of votes from Obama supporters like Megan Rose.

Dismissing offshore drilling as "a non-issue," the 34-year-old teacher from the Philadelphia suburb of Wayne said she's proudly casting her vote for Barack Obama.

"Why? My God, where do I begin?" she said. "I'm just really upset and disappointed in the direction the country has headed in the last eight years."



The energy alternatives

Sen. John McCain, R

*Would permanently allow offshore drilling for oil and gas in the Atlantic, Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, but would not allow it in the Great Lakes or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

*Would set a goal of building 45 new nuclear power plants by the year 2030.

*Would spend $2 billion annually on clean-coal technologies.

*Would establish a "clean car challenge" that offers a $5,000 tax credit to everyone who buys a car that does not emit carbon, and that offers a $300 million prize to the developer of plug-in hybrid or fully electric cars that leapfrog currently available technology.

*Opposes a windfall profits tax on oil companies.

*Proposes a cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gas emissions.


Sen. Barack Obama, D

*Would reassess offshore drilling now that the ban has been temporarily lifted, but would not allow drilling in the Great Lakes or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

*Says nuclear waste issues need to be resolved before additional nuclear plants are built.

*Would establish a public-private partnership to build five clean-coal power plants.

*Would invest $150 billion over 10 years to develop alternative energy sources and "green collar" jobs.

*Would establish a windfall profits tax on oil companies that would result in tax rebates of $500 for individuals and $1,000 for families.

*Proposes a cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gas emissions.


Today: "New Energy?" - Pennsylvania debates our energy future.

Nov. 3: "The Bubble Bursts" - The economic slump hits Ohio.

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