WASHINGTON (AP) -- To understand why Barack Obama and John McCain are emphasizing solutions to the country's energy woes and have scrambled to change their positions, look no further than the voters' distress over $4-a-gallon gasoline and its wide ripple effect.
The presidential candidates' sparring over energy peaked this week as each sought to capitalize on a topic that touches every voter and provides a way to discuss the declining economy at home, national security threats abroad and the changing climate worldwide.
"Sen. McCain's energy plan reads like an early Christmas list for oil and gas lobbyists," Obama charged Wednesday, a day after accusing the GOP of misstating his proposals. He is using the issue to paint the four-term Arizona senator as a Washington insider beholden to special interests while trying to strike a balance on the environment vs. exploration debate that divides Democrats.
Conversely, McCain is leading a Republican Party largely unified in support of oil and gas drilling off U.S. coastlines and is trying to use energy to cut the Democrat's edge in the polls on economic issues. He dubbed Obama "Dr. No" because of his opposition to expanded nuclear power and unlimited offshore drilling. Said McCain on Wednesday: "We need an 'all of the above' plan."
This year energy policies resonate with voters of all political stripes, as high gasoline prices inflate the cost of food, transportation and other necessities. The country's dependence on foreign oil raises national security concerns as U.S. troops fights wars in the oil-rich Middle East. And, the public's concern over global climate change has grown in recent years along with calls for alternative energy sources to curb planet-warming greenhouse gases.
"Almost everyone wants this problem solved," said Andrew Kohut, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "The candidates are responding to the fact that the public is hurting and crying for relief."
Interviews and surveys bear that out.
"We can help our family less and less" because high gas costs are "pretty bad" and crunching the family's budget, said Renee Wren, a 50-year-old Riverview, Fla., homemaker with three grown children who are semi-dependent and two grandchildren.
In St. Louis, Carla Fehribach, a 65-year-old airline customer service agent, is shopping and going out less because gas prices have strained her budget. She said: "I don't do things I would normally do right now."
Like many others, Fehribach and Wren say energy proposals will help them determine their vote. Both are leaning toward Obama now.
An ongoing AP-Yahoo News poll that began in November shows that gas prices have risen steadily to near the top of voters' concerns; the issue now is second only to the economy. A whopping 87 percent surveyed now say gas prices are at least a very important issue to them personally, while roughly the same amount as before the primaries - 62 percent - say the environment is at least a very important issue.
Also, a Pew Research Center poll in June found growing support for more energy exploration. Roughly the same percentage of people said drilling and other exploration should be the top priority as said energy conservation should get the most attention. A few months earlier, far more people favored conservation than exploration.
Said Kohut: "Politically, I think it's the only domestic, economically leaning issue where the Republicans have a slight opportunity - even advantage - because of the trend in support for even greater exploration."
More than half of those in a USA Today/Gallup Poll in late July said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who favored easing restrictions on offshore drilling, while one third said they'd be likelier to oppose that candidate. Even more - nearly seven in 10 - said they'd be likelier to support a candidate who favored tax breaks for energy conservation, raising mileage requirements for vehicles, and increasing federal research on alternative energy.
GOP efforts may be swaying some undecided voters.
"I would have to lean more toward McCain with this offshore drilling," said Gene Zupkofska, 71, a retiree in Rockland, Mass. In Amarillo, Texas, Terry Hearn, too, cited McCain's drilling position on that as a primary reason he's seriously considering the Republican over the Democrat. Said Hearn, age 51: "They need to do something" to try to lower gas prices.
McCain reversed his opposition to more offshore drilling in June and endorsed lifting a federal moratorium to allow individual states to decide whether to drill in waters off their coasts. Thereafter, President Bush backed the move and Republicans in Congress beat the drilling drum.
Obama was pulled in two directions as liberal Democrats continued to oppose drilling because of environmental concerns while other Democrats revised their longtime positions to respond to voters' distress.
Over the last week, Obama dropped his longtime opposition to offshore drilling and to using the nation's oil stockpile: He said he'd be willing to support limited offshore drilling if that's what it takes to enact a comprehensive energy policy and proposed releasing 70 million barrels from the nation's 707-million-barrel strategic oil reserve to help lower pump prices.
Associated Press Writers Christine Simmons and Alan Fram contributed to this report.