Image: John McCain
Lm Otero  /  AP file
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., delivers the keynote speech to NFIB & eBay 2008 National Small Business Summit, Tuesday, June 10, in Washington D.C.
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msnbc.com
updated 6/18/2008 1:45:33 PM ET 2008-06-18T17:45:33

Sen. John McCain may be 71 — a quarter century older than Sen. Barack Obama — but he is trying to win the White House by portraying himself as the more action-oriented, practical and resilient man.

He wants to have some of the powers of both the Ironman and the Hulk, although the post-spinach Popeye would be more appropriate.

And he wants to portray Obama as the former professor too inexperienced and caught up in theoretical matters to be president in perilous, crisis-ridden times.

That is the sense I get of one prong of the McCain camp’s strategic thinking as their candidate junks much of his past association with environmentalism in a five-day energy tour that continues today.

McCain wants to do immediate things as gas prices continue to rise inexorably toward five dollars a gallon.

He remains in favor of a federal gas-tax moratorium, a gimmick for sure, but a politically salable one. Yesterday he announced — in Houston, of course — that he has reversed course, and now favors lifting the 27-year-old federal ban on drilling for oil and gas in the Outer Continental Shelf, or OCS (though McCain remains in favor of the ban on drilling in Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR).

He is coming out for an aggressive plan to build more nuclear power plants and attendant facilities; for new federal money for quick-to-market “clean coal” technology; for oil-shale development; and for other measures. He wants to pour money into currently-available car-battery technology.

In other words: Let’s drill! Let’s generate! Let’s dig! Let’s manufacture!

Whoa!

Allies pitching in
The Bush White House, key McCain allies in the states, and most Republicans on the Hill seem glad to hear the news, and are pitching in. The president announced yesterday that he, too, now favors lifting the OCS moratorium. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who would love to be on the ticket with McCain, says that he too is for doing so, even in the beach-and-tourism dependent Sunshine State, and GOP members are lining up with bill after bill to tap American energy supplies.

Is McCain making the right bet politically? Even some Republican leaders are dubious. The Arizona senator can’t afford to be seen as a flip-flopper, said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who heads the House GOP’s campaign committee. And while the McCain campaign insists that this isn’t a change of position, Cole worries that McCain is risking his most prized possession, the image of a man of conviction.

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But McCain operatives think they are striking pay dirt. For one, they note it would be up to the individual states to decide whether to allow drilling in the OCS. Second, most proposals call for the feds to let the states keep most of the tax money that would result. And third, most proposals call for off shore drilling to be pretty far off shore — 50 miles or more.

More importantly, McCain is trying to turn the energy issue into an immediate security matter — and offering himself as commander-in-chief of a new era of gas-pump warfare.

This strategy is called making the best of a bad situation.

McCain trails Obama in most measures on most issues, including the question of who can best deal with rising pump prices. McCain’s candidacy is built on one rock: national security and the war on terror. Now he wants to turn energy supply and prices into an urgent national security issue. “We are talking security at every stop,” says advisor Charlie Black.

Raising money
Campaign funds are part of the calculation, too, though the McCain campaign denies it. It is no accident that McCain launched his new energy round in Houston, where his fundraising appeal remains weak and where George Bush’s donors have hung back. They may still.

“We’re not going to get a lot of those people, regardless,” said Black. That doesn’t mean the campaign can’t try. There is a lot of potential profit for old-school corporate America in most of the measures McCain is suggesting.

The McCain campaign may also be looking at the demographics of the electorate right now and, for the most part, giving up on the youngest voters, who have been reared on concerns for the global environment, and who incorporate it in their approach to everything. McCain is losing 2-1 to Obama among under-30 voters in the latest Washington Post poll. Older voters are more inclined to the drill-dig-and-generate ethos.

Video: McCain camp: Policies vs. Obama's fallacies So, perhaps, are voters in key industrial states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylva-nian and West Virginia — all places where Obama may be weak and McCain will try to counterattack as Obama pursues his “50 state strategy” through Novem-ber.

The candidate's bet
McCain is making a specific bet on states such as Colorado and New Mexico, which are seen by some as seedbeds of environmentalism, but which also are oil-and-gas states that could benefit from a new drilling, digging and building boom in rural areas.

McCain and his advisors argue that they support all the long-range solutions too; from a sweeping conservation ethic, to switch grass, to solar panels and to wind farming. McCain’s current proposals are only a “bridge” to a non-carbon-based future, Black said. “Of course we need renewable and recycling and all of the exotics,” he said. “But we can’t get there from here without being urgent about production now.”

The word exotics got my attention. It’s a rather dated technical term for innovative, over-the-horizon fuel sources.

Of course in today’s world nothing is exotic anymore, but Black — as savvy a political counterpuncher as there is — was using it in a new context, with a new, unspoken subtext: Obama is an “exotic” candidate in favor of “exotic” fuels. He likes Green Tea and Whole Foods for heaven’s sake.

McCain wants to portray his foe as a professorial man mesmerized by the big picture.

Not action-hero McCain. He’s for spinach — and oil.

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