WASHINGTON - As the presidential candidates debated long distance over oil policy, prices fell sharply on world markets yesterday in response to President Clinton's decision to tap the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
In London, oil futures briefly dipped below $30 a barrel for the first time since August, and U.S. prices dropped by more than $1 a barrel, to $31.57, in New York. That represents a decline of more than 15 percent from last week's post-Persian Gulf war high.
The president of OPEC, Ali Rodriguez, speaking in advance of a meeting of oil-producing nations later this week in Venezuela, was quoted in an Arab newspaper as predicting that crude oil prices would continue to fall, to between $22 and $28 a barrel, later this year.
Vice President Al Gore, who had called on Clinton last week to release government oil supplies, was quick to credit the administration's move for the price drop.
"Of course, we'll take it one step at a time," Gore said. "But so far, so good."
His GOP rival, George W. Bush, has accused Gore of using the U.S. oil stockpiles as his own "strategic political reserve" to benefit his campaign. And in at least one closely watched national survey, Gore's popularity has fallen by 7 percentage points since he called for action by Clinton in a speech Thursday in Southern Maryland.
The latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, which tracks voter sentiment on a daily basis, shows Bush leading Gore by 3 points, a statistical dead heat. On Wednesday, Gore held a 10-point lead in the same survey, though it is unclear how much effect the administration's oil decision might have had on Gore's slippage in the poll, according to Gallup President Frank Newport.
Gore, in an interview on NBC's "Today" show, added a new justification for his demand for sudden action on energy supplies, with the election just six weeks away. He said he was highlighting the issue in "an effort to get a mandate, to get the next Congress to move toward more energy independence."
Republicans, however, contend Gore is motivated more by a desire for votes, particularly from key Northeast and Midwest states where millions rely on oil to heat their homes.
Republicans are pressing the point that Gore has done a complete turnabout since last winter, when he went on record against dipping into the petroleum reserve in response to high prices.
"The situation was very different then," Gore said, noting that OPEC has failed to follow through on promises to increase production and bring down prices.
Democratic sources said that Gore's reversal was also motivated by the calculation that now, unlike last winter, a move to add U.S. reserves to the world market would not prompt OPEC to cut production.
Over the weekend, finance ministers and bankers from the major industrialized nations, meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, against a backdrop of rising gasoline prices in Europe, urged the oil-producing countries to boost production.
Although OPEC is not scheduled to consider pumping more oil until November, the cartel's leaders may have something to say about Clinton's actions at their meeting in Caracas, Venezuela, that begins tomorrow.
Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi signaled his kingdom's support for the U.S. move yesterday, saying the release "will stabilize the price of oil."
Although the amount of oil being released over the next month amounts to less than a two-day supply for the United States, it appeared to provide a psychological boost to energy markets.
Energy analysts had predicted that Clinton's action would lower prices to around $30 a barrel, from a peak of more than $37, on futures markets last week, the highest price since the gulf war.
One energy analyst, David Brown, chief economist at Bear Stearns in London, told Reuters that the release of oil from the U.S. reserve would help "remove panic" from world oil markets.
On the political front, Gore kept up the pressure by taking a thinly disguised shot at Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, both of whom were oil executives in Texas. Gore said on NBC that he intended to stand up "for the American people" against "the apologists for big oil [who] support an agenda that's of big oil, for big oil and by big oil."
Asked if he was referring to Bush, Gore replied: "I'm not using any names. All I'm looking at is the proposals that have come from the oil companies. It's true that the oil companies are supporting my opponent."
Bush, who has blamed failed leadership by the Clinton administration for rising energy prices and supply shortages, favors increased government aid to help the poor pay their heating bills. He also wants to see increased exploration and production from Alaska's north coast, a position supported by the oil industry and opposed by Gore and environmentalists.
Bush, in a weekend interview, continued to criticize Gore and Clinton for what he called the politically motivated "bad idea" of tapping the oil reserves.
"It's a bad idea, because it could create a long-term security issue for the United States of America, and it's an idea that I think is spurred by short-term political gains," he said on CBS.
Democrats, meantime, said Gore could benefit, at least temporarily, from the drop in oil prices.
"I think Gore's making every effort to show himself to be effective, even when it means wrestling with his own administration," said Alan Secrest, a Democratic consultant not involved with Gore's campaign. "I think he accomplished his political goal."
He was referring to earlier opposition within administration from Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers to the use of the government's petroleum stockpile.
Whether Gore would actually gain on Election Day from a drop in crude oil prices isn't clear, political analysts said.
Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, said voters would be quick to blame the party in power, and therefore Gore, if energy prices remain high.
But even if they come down further, she added, "I'm not sure people are going to give Gore credit."
Republican pollster Whit Ayres of Atlanta said Gore "came across as a panderer and most people can see through that." He likened Gore's flip-flop on the release of oil reserves to the vice president's much-criticized decision to split with the administration last winter over the fate of Elian Gonzalez.
In one key battleground state, Pennsylvania, where 1.2 million residents rely on home-heating fuel and oil costs have soared, political scientist G. Terry Madonna says he doesn't think energy prices will be a major voter concern.
At the same time, however, Madonna says that voters might overlook Gore's re-positioning on the issue, even if they think he did it mainly for political reasons.
"They're not unhappy because he spoke out about heating oil, and they're not concerned about whether he was doing it for strategic political purposes or not," says Madonna, who directs the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University. "In the end, it comes down to who's going to help people in need and what people think the role of government is supposed to be."
The complicated politics of the energy issue can often divide more along regional lines than partisan ones. A Republican congressman from the Scranton, Pa., area - one of the most fiercely contested presidential battlefields - issued a statement praising Gore for endorsing a proposed northeast heating oil reserve last week.
"It's time we put this issue above partisan politics," said Rep. Don Sherwood, who faces a tough re-election challenge. "Now, as we prepare for winter, we need price relief and an emergency home heating oil supply more than ever."