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Bush to detail energy policy


WASHINGTON - President Bush will lay out a sweeping new energy policy for the nation today during a speech in Minnesota. Then comes step two: the big sell.

Bush and his aides are preparing to spend the next few weeks in an aggressive drive - touting the plan in visits across the country, mobilizing grass-roots groups and dispatching allies to do television and radio interviews to try to rally support for the plan, which has evoked scorn from critics.

Yesterday, Bush called his plan "the first comprehensive energy policy probably ever, certainly in a long time," after years of neglect - a period that White House officials have acknowledged includes the administration of Bush's father.

The president's biggest challenge will likely be to convince Americans that his policy will help them cope with the strains they are already feeling - from soaring fuel prices to the California blackouts, which many fear could spread elsewhere this summer.

What makes that task so difficult is that, as Bush has acknowledged, his plan - to be released today in a 170- page report - won't rely on short-term fixes, such as suspending the federal gasoline tax or setting price limits on electricity. And while he has promised steps to encourage conservation, the president has said it will not be the primary focus.

Rather, Bush and his advisers say, only comprehensive, long-term solutions can truly safeguard the nation against future energy shortfalls. Accordingly, the Bush plan will call for boosting domestic supplies of oil and natural gas, burning coal more efficiently, and renewing a commitment to nuclear power.

Such long-term proposals are likely to have little or no effect on the summer driving season, and many Republicans say they are counting on the president to make a compelling argument for why quick fixes are not the solution.

"I'm going to tell the truth when it comes to energy," Bush said last week. "I'm also going to say, as plainly as I can, we won't conserve our way to energy independence. We must also increase supply. It's in the consumers' interests that we do so. The more supply there is, relative to demand, the less the price will be."

With Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney already facing skepticism because of their backgrounds as oil industry executives, Republican strategists say Bush must sell his long-term solutions while also showing compassion for the struggles of average people.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans believe the nation's energy woes are "very serious," compared with 31 percent who said so two months ago. Also, 47 percent of respondents said rising gasoline prices have caused "hardship" for their families, and 58 percent said they would drive less this summer because of high gasoline prices.

The White House has already felt the need to tweak its message to satisfy an increasingly worried public, even before the plan has been released.

Two weeks ago, for example, Cheney dismissed the importance of conservation, especially policies used by President Jimmy Carter's administration to deal with oil price shocks in the 1970s. But, with polls showing support for conservation measures, the White House began to revise its rhetoric last week.

"We need to be more conservation-minded," Bush said.

Last week, after the administration said it did not favor short-term solutions and was not considering scaling back the federal gas tax, some Republicans began to gripe that the president was not showing enough concern for consumers.

On Friday, Bush trotted out a new argument: that his tax-cut plan would ease energy woes by giving people extra money to spend on fuel.

Yesterday, the White House took another approach, insisting that Bush's energy plan would offer some short-term relief, albeit indirectly. Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, suggested that suppliers' expectation of discovering new sources of energy can itself help drive down gasoline prices.

"Spot markets react to presumptions about future supply," Fleischer said. "When spot markets start moving down, it ripples throughout the energy industry, particularly the price of petroleum, that can help set prices down."

Another obstacle for Bush is accusations from Democrats that he and Cheney have drafted a policy that conspicuously favors the energy industry, which heavily backed their campaign last year, and other corporate interests.

Perhaps reinforcing that perception, a coalition of business groups has created the Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth to urge support for Bush's energy plan. Environmental groups say the plan would imperil natural resources and vow to fight it with protests, TV ads and lobbying efforts.

On Tuesday, House Democrats proposed their own energy plan, one that stresses the benefits of conservation and of capping electricity prices.

The Democrats argued that Bush and Cheney's friendships with oil executives have made it impossible for them to take steps that would benefit consumers at the expense of the industry.

Michael K. Deaver, who was President Ronald Reagan's primary image-maker, said Bush would be wise to talk more about ordinary Americans and their hardships in an energy crisis and less about how much more oil needs to be discovered.

"Refineries are business - but if you talk about people and the way energy affects their lives, it becomes a visual image people can see," Deaver said. "It's important they show some empathy there."

Deaver added: "You can't talk about this in government terms or in the abstract. What's important is families. That is what Clinton was good at. He really could personalize the message. It is something the Bush people have to do."

White House officials say that as Bush travels the country in coming weeks, he will pitch the energy program. He is launching the campaign by visiting three states in two days. After his speech this morning in St. Paul, Minn., Bush will make stops in Iowa and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the president's allies at the Republican National Committee will fill the airwaves in coming weeks, taping and broadcasting interviews with members of Congress and other politicians for radio and TV stations nationwide. Each interview is to be tailored to individual communities and to focus on "How does the energy plan affect you?" an RNC official said.

The best way to drum up support for the plan, said Bill Greener, a Republican strategist, is to explain that long-term energy policies can affect lives in ways that many people may not recognize. For example, he said, energy shortages can create higher bills for manufacturers, who must pass on the cost to consumers.

"It's easy to see the connection between energy and the price of gasoline for your car," he said. "It may not be as easy to see the connection between energy and 'What's it gonna cost me to buy new textbooks?'"

The White House energy plan was crafted with a careful eye to public attitudes. Republicans say their internal polling shows that Americans, fearful of an energy crisis, have become more open to easing some environmental regulations and expanding the use of nuclear power, if those steps might reverse energy shortages.

The public relations blitz really began weeks ago, when the administration began inviting groups who stand to benefit from the energy plan to come to the White House, where they received a preview and were encouraged to go home and promote the policies.

This week, the White House invited in union leaders, who are typically staunch Democrats but who have signaled some support for Bush's energy plan because building new power plants could create thousands of jobs.

Late last month, about 100 representatives from the coal industry and politicians from coal-producing areas crowded into a room for a preview from Bush administration officials, including Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

"They said, 'We're asking for your support and help with this,'" said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

Under Clinton, Raney said, coal producers were often stymied by confusing environmental regulations that made it onerous to obtain permits to operate mines.

"We spent a long number of years when you got the feeling they were trying to do away with fossil fuels," Raney said. "You didn't feel recognized. But it is apparent now that they are looking to us for help. That's reassuring."

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