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CAMPAIGN 2000

Gore Back to Attack on Big Oil

Politics: Democratic nominee aims to place blame for rising energy prices. He also seeks to be prepared for any possible voter backlash on the issue.

September 21, 2000|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — Opening a new front in the battle for the White House, Vice President Al Gore today intends to take on oil companies by laying responsibility for rising energy prices on the industry's corporate doorstep, campaign officials said Wednesday.

The new campaign tack comes as crude oil prices have soared to their highest levels since 1990--in the months before the Persian Gulf War--and as the costs of gasoline and home heating oil continue to surge.

In a televised interview Wednesday anticipating the new push, Gore pointed out that he already has urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the role of oil companies in the summer spike in gasoline prices that hit consumers as oil companies raked in big profits.

"The basic question is who is going to fight for people even when it means standing up to big oil companies and foreign oil, and I have never hesitated to do that," Gore said in the interview with Fox News.

This is not the first time the Democratic presidential nominee has injected high energy prices into the campaign. But it was clear Wednesday that he hopes to elevate the issue and use it to his advantage, seeking in part to inoculate himself against voter backlash should high oil prices pinch consumers around election time.

While the stance is consistent with his attempt to portray himself as a populist who would take on corporate interests, it also reflects Gore's continuing push to focus on issues--where polls suggest he is more in sync with voters than rival George W. Bush--rather than on character or trust.

"This is a major concern for people--the rising price of heating oil and the rising price of gasoline," Chris Lehane, Gore's press secretary, said Wednesday. Gore would make proposals, he said, that "will help us deal with this crisis right here, right now."

It appeared Wednesday that Gore would propose, or possibly even announce, that the government draw upon the vast Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase supply and reduce prices. The country has dipped into the reserve, a stockpile of 507 million barrels of crude oil, only once in the last quarter century, during the Persian Gulf War.

In another sign that energy could emerge as a key campaign issue, Bush, the Republican nominee, called on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to help reduce prices worldwide by increasing production.

Gore aides quickly counterattacked, issuing a statement claiming that Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, as chief executive of the oil service giant Halliburton Co., praised OPEC in April 1999 for lowering production.

The campaign cited quotes attributed to Cheney in which he welcomed an OPEC decision to cut production by 2.1 million barrels a day as a cause for "optimism."

The Gore statement, though, did not point out that oil prices at the time had rebounded slightly from their lowest inflation-adjusted levels since the Great Depression. And it did not mention that low oil prices had cut oil exploration efforts, leading to thousands of layoffs at Halliburton and other oil-support businesses.

There is no sure payoff for either side in making energy prices a campaign issue. Gore clearly hopes to get out in front of consumer outrage. But on the other hand, the Clinton administration seems vulnerable to charges--which Bush already has leveled--that the high prices stem in part from the nation's lack of a comprehensive energy policy.

Bush addressed the issue again Wednesday in an interview with MSNBC. "Under this administration there has been no energy policy. It's been one of the failures of the Clinton-Gore administration."

Higher prices also could dampen the economy, which could hurt Gore's claim that he would be the better steward of the nation's prosperity.

As Gore's aides were pushing the new agenda Wednesday, the candidate stuck to his basic stump speech during a morning rally in Sunnyvale, near San Jose, before returning to Washington to attend a Congressional Hispanic Institute dinner.

Also Wednesday, Lehane again was pelted with questions from reporters about whether Gore misstated facts when he said that his mother-in-law was paying three times as much for a prescription drug similar to one that his dog takes.

Lehane tried to brush off the questions, saying the Bush campaign was spending more time fanning the controversy than on developing a prescription drug plan.

He also dismissed a 209-page report by a House Republican panel, chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, that accuses Gore and other administration officials Tuesday of mismanaging U.S. relations with Russia.

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Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this story.

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