Tipping Point

The hurt of high gas prices has grown so painful that even Californians are now willing to drill for oil off their coast to make the suffering stop.

That is the bottom line political conclusion to be drawn from a startling new poll that shows, for the first time, a narrow majority of Californians now favors more offshore oil drilling.

On a day when the conflict over increased drilling in coastal waters occupied President Bush, who stepped up his attacks on congressional Democrats, as well as the Senate, which melted down over the issue, the surprising survey by the Public Policy Institute of California underscored how the conflict is becoming Topic A in politics.

For California politicians, the protection of the state's coastal waters has evolved into a sacred cow, starting with the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Through Republican and Democratic adminstrations alike, the environmental sanctity of the coast increasingly became a bipartisan issue in the state. As Don Sipple, a veteran Republican political consultant who lives in Montecito told the L.A. Times recently, "It's not an issue here, it's a deeply held value."

But the relentless scourge of escalating gas prices appears to be altering what has been the long-settled political landscape. As narrow as the margin may be, the fact that a majority of residents in California, of all places, would back expanded coastal drilling is an extraordinary development.

For John McCain, drawing a direct connection between gas prices and the offshore issue offers a political opportunity to pick up the populist mantle in the 2008 election, to shake up what has been a strongly pro-Democratic political environment and to pierce the shield of Obamania. With Barack Obama embracing the Democratic position that, effectively, places a higher premium on environmental protection than on development of new oil resources, McCain has his best opening of the campaign to perform some political ju-jitsu.

For starters, the offshore issue allows him to put substance behind his argument that Obama is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans. To date, the McCain campaign has flailed wildly in trying to make this case, most recently with a truly silly ad that links Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. By contrast, hammering relentlessly on Obama's support for an offshore drilling ban allows him to make the same case while highlighting concerns that are actually relevant to real people. With the election now shaped as a referendum on Obama, it also gives him a pathway to define the Democrat, still an unknown commodity to many voters.

The gas price-offshore argument could offer McCain entree into some traditionally blue states, to match how Obama has succeeded in opening up the electoral map by carrying his change message to longtime Republican red states in the south.

The PPIC poll shows, for example, that residents in large swaths of heavily Democratic California, including the Inland Empire, the Central Valley, San Diego and Orange County, strongly endorse offshore drilling. To be sure, McCain is a long way from making California competitive. Today's PPIC poll shows Obama with a 50-to-35 percent lead over the Republican. But taking the issue of high energy costs away from Obama, who so far has succeeded in framing them as part of a failed Bush economic policy, could help McCain press the Illinois Senator to spend resources shoring up his own electoral base, instead of fighting on McCain's turf.

Offshore drilling is just one of dozens of issues examined by the PPIC poll, which offers a rich and textured look at the attitudes of Californians about the environment and the economy.

For example, the survey shows that, despite widespread worries about gas prices, Californians also express serious concerns about global warming, fuel efficient cars, and air pollution, the number one environmental priority listed by state residents.

"Tough economic times have not diminished the importance of environmental issues for Californians," said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of PPIC. "The environment is seen as a matter of health and well-being and residents don't want to cut corners there."

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