WASHINGTON - Seeking to drive a wedge between Vice President Al Gore and blue-collar voters in the Midwest, Gov. George W. Bush proposed a broad energy policy yesterday that includes oil exploration in the wilderness of northern Alaska.
The proposal, which Bush said would end eight years of inaction by the Clinton administration, mixes environmentally friendly efforts to promote renewable energy with oil exploration and production ideas opposed by environmentalists.
Most of the proposals have long been pursued by the Clinton administration, which Bush accuses of having no energy policy. Some of the ideas have come under sustained attack from Bush's closest Republican allies in Congress.
With the presidential election less than six weeks away, the details of Bush's energy policy carried a heavy political context. The Texas governor chose blue-collar Saginaw, Mich., to needle Gore on the vice president's past advocacy of higher energy taxes and statements in his environmental jeremiad, "Earth in the Balance," in which Gore referred to the internal combustion engine as "a mortal threat" to America.
The Bush campaign's calculation was simple: upend Gore's support in the Rust Belt by raising suspicions that the vice president's environmentalism threatens Midwestern jobs that involve the manufacturing of gasoline-powered cars and the generation of energy.
"The vice president likes electric cars; he just doesn't like making electricity," Bush told workers on the floor of an automotive components plant. "In speeches, he calls auto workers his friends. In his book, he declares the engines they make an enemy."
The Democratic ticket returned fire quickly.
Gore, speaking under a canopy of hemlock trees at an Audubon Naturalist Society refuge in Chevy Chase, homed in on Bush's proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - which Gore called "one of our greatest national treasures" - to oil exploration.
"We don't have to degrade our environment in order to secure our energy future," Gore told a partisan crowd of Democratic politicians and environmentalists.
His running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, meanwhile, traveled to Bush's home turf, Houston, to assail the governor's environmental record before a backdrop of belching smokestacks.
Of the two dozen proposals outlined by Bush, only a few run counter to Clinton policy.
One that clearly does - Bush's idea to open the Arctic refuge to oil exploration - helped precipitate the first government shutdown of 1995, when President Clinton refused to enact a Republican-sponsored spending measure that contained the oil provision.
Some of the proposals already exist in some form, such as tax credits to promote such renewable energy sources as solar and wind power. Bush proposed releasing $155 million in low-income home heating aid yesterday, six days after Clinton ordered the release of $400 million from the same fund. And the Texas governor called for the creation of a Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve, something that was created this year.
Many of the proposals echo Gore's own energy blueprint. Bush proposed spending $1.4 billion over 10 years on improving the insulation and energy efficiency of low-income housing; that was $100 million less than Gore has proposed for the same program. Bush proposed spending roughly $5 billion on alternative energy and environmental measures that are similar to initiatives for which Gore has earmarked $70 billion.
Some of the programs backed by Bush, in fact, have been targeted unsuccessfully for elimination by Bush's Republican allies. The governor, for example, proposed spending $2 billion over 10 years on so-called "clean coal technology," about what is being spent today. In June, Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, a strong Bush supporter, tried to strip funding for clean coal from the 2001 budget, declaring it "a boondoggle."
Some of Bush's ideas also mirror Clinton proposals that have languished in Congress. Yesterday, for instance, Bush embraced legislation to deregulate the electric power industry - legislation that Clinton proposed in 1998.
And Bush called for $1.4 billion in tax credits to develop alternative fuel sources, a plan that appears similar to broad tax credits that Congress has refused to enact and that Gore continues to push.
Bush campaign officials did not return phone calls yesterday seeking an explanation of the similarities between his proposals and existing or proposed programs of the Clinton administration.
But for Bush, the administration's inability to enact these goals into law is the point. Legislative deadlock highlights what the governor has called a leadership gap in Washington.
Pointing to the high price of fuel, Bush declared, "After 7 1/2 years in office, and four months before departing, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore have begun to grasp a problem that has been years in the making."
The one proposal that sharply separates Bush from the Clinton administration is energy exploration, and Bush stressed it repeatedly. He assailed Gore on the vice president's opposition to oil drilling, his clean-air regulations to curtail coal combustion and his refusal to rule out breaching dams in the Pacific Northwest to help endangered salmon species.
"America runs on oil and gas and coal gained from the earth, and from water held behind our dams," Bush said.
And he faulted the administration for allowing the U.S. dependence on foreign oil to worsen.
"Let me put it plainly," Bush said. "Our production is dropping. Our imports of foreign oil are skyrocketing. And this administration has failed to act."
By picking a fight over oil exploration, Bush appeared to have taken a calculated risk. He hopes to make gains in the Midwest, where jobs depend on energy-intensive industry. But he might inflame environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps solidifying the vice president's standing in Oregon and Washington state.
Gore aides said yesterday that a Gore-Bush battle over the environment would undercut the assertion of Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, that there's little difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates. And that could bolster Gore's pitch to Nader supporters that a vote for Nader is, in effect, a vote for Bush.
Bush's father, President George Bush, made a similar calculation in his failed re-election bid in 1992, when he attacked Gore as "ozone man" and accused Clinton and Gore of putting the lives of endangered spotted owls over people.
Yesterday, Gore echoed Clinton's 1992 response, saying that dramatic changes in automotive technology or energy production need not cost jobs. Engines that run on energy sources other than gasoline, Gore said, could actually be a boon to the auto industry.
Sun staff writer Jules Witcover contributed to this article.