SUNNYVALE, Calif. - Opening a new front in the battle for the White House, Vice President Al Gore intends to take on oil companies today by laying responsibility for rising energy prices on the industry's corporate doorstep, campaign officials said yesterday.
The new tack comes as crude oil prices have soared to their highest levels since 1990 - in the months before the Persian Gulf war - and as the costs of gas and home heating oil continue to surge.
Yesterday, Gore pointed out that he already has urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the role of oil companies in the summer spike in gasoline prices, which hit consumers as oil companies raked in skyrocketing profits.
"The basic question is, who is going to fight for people even when it means standing up to big oil companies and foreign oil, and I have never hesitated to do that," Gore told Fox News.
This is not the first time Gore has injected high energy prices into the campaign. But it was clear yesterday that he hopes to elevate the issue and use it to his advantage, seeking in part to inoculate himself against voter backlash should high oil prices pinch consumers around election time.
While the stance is consistent with his attempt to portray himself as a populist who would take on corporate interests, it also reflects Gore's continuing push to focus on issues - where polls suggest he is more in sync with voters than rival George W. Bush - rather than on character or trust.
"This is a major concern for people - the rising price of heating oil and the rising price of gasoline," Chris Lehane, Gore's press secretary, said yesterday. Gore would make proposals, he said, that "will help us deal with this crisis right here, right now."
In another sign that energy could emerge as a key campaign issue, Bush, the Republican nominee, called on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to help reduce prices worldwide by increasing production.
Gore aides quickly counterattacked, issuing a statement claiming that Bush running mate Dick Cheney, as chief executive of the oil service giant Halliburton Co., praised OPEC in April 1999 for decreasing production.
The campaign cited quotes attributed to Cheney in which he welcomed an OPEC decision to cut production by 2.1 million barrels a day as a cause for "optimism."
The Gore statement, though, did not point out that oil prices at the time had rebounded slightly from their lowest inflation-adjusted levels since the Great Depression. And it did not mention that low oil prices had cut oil-exploration efforts, leading to thousands of layoffs at Halliburton and other oil-support businesses.
Last night, Bush told MSNBC: "Under this administration there has been no energy policy. It's been one of the failures of the Clinton-Gore administration."