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updated 6/18/2008 12:46:17 PM ET 2008-06-18T16:46:17
ON THE TRAIL

When it comes to persuading Americans who can best handle energy policy and offer help on gas prices, John McCain clearly has a tougher road ahead than his presidential rival. In the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Barack Obama was seen as the more trustworthy of the two on energy policy, by 15 percentage points, and on gas prices, by 20 points.

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Obama is fond of attacking McCain's proposals -- such as a gas-tax holiday and his recent push to lift the federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling -- as mere short-term gimmickry, but is Obama actually the one running the bigger risk of looking out of touch?

It's true he was not derailed when Hillary Rodham Clinton embraced a similar gas-tax holiday this spring, but it's also true Democrats are less receptive to the idea than Republicans or independents. A Gallup poll conducted in early May showed just 50 percent of Democrats supportive of the gas-tax holiday, compared with 58 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of independents. More importantly, it had 65% support among those making less than $30,000 and 56 percent support in the battleground Midwest.

Meanwhile, Obama's proposals -- a $150 billion, 10-year investment in the "green energy sector" and a windfall profits tax -- won't bring down the price of gas anytime soon. And his support of the 2005 energy bill, which McCain voted against, makes it hard for him to take the high ground on Big Oil.

The crush of day-to-day economic concerns also threatens to overshadow Obama's other middle-class policy proposals.

His trip to Michigan this week provides a prime example. Obama's June 17 speech at Wayne Community College was designed to highlight his plan to make college more affordable , specifically by offering a $4,000 tax credit to students in return for public service. Then he sat down with a student who was distressed that she still needed $1,500 for to pay for the next semester. Why? "I can't work hardly as much as I used to before and I've started using that money for gas money," she said. For community college students, most of whom are commuters, the choice between gas and textbooks is not theoretical.

To be sure, McCain's offshore drilling proposal , presented at a speech in Houston the same day Obama was in Michigan, carries risks of its own. Not only is it a reversal from his 2000 position, but it puts his moderate image to the test, especially with eco-sensitive coastal voters. And it brings no short-term relief at the pump.

With just 20 weeks left until Election Day, does McCain have time to improve his standing among voters? Yes. The Post poll showed that just about 50 percent of voters say they don't know much about the specific policy positions of either candidate. That's good news for McCain if he can take advantage of the fact that voters' perceptions of him haven't hardened and shake his image as a stand-in for President Bush.

It's no coincidence that the same day McCain was offering his drilling proposal, he debuted an ad in a number of battleground states in which he boasts of how he "stood up to the president and sounded the alarm on global warming." McCain doesn't need to look like a stronger environmentalist than Obama, he just needs to look different from Bush. But that was made more difficult with the announcement just hours after McCain's speech in Houston that Bush was going to call on Congress to lift the drilling moratorium.

Voters aren't stupid. They know that neither candidate has a silver bullet for getting gas prices under control. Even a modest drop in gas prices probably wouldn't make a significant dent in the currently dismal "wrong direction" numbers. The old "chicken in every pot" promises just don't cut it when voters are worried about the very structural integrity of the American economy. One media consultant recalled a focus group a couple years back where a participant wondered out loud, "Who are we and what do we make anymore?" Now add the confusion we all felt when we learned that our economy could be brought to its knees not by war or another Dust Bowl, but by bad mortgage loans.

In the end, most voters aren't looking for specific policy proposals. They are looking for the candidate who they feel can best soothe their anxiety and give them a realistic -- but optimistic -- approach for the future.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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