By Bernie Becker and Ben Geman - 09/05/12 09:00 AM EDT
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Democrats have a simple message for Republicans planning to attack President Obama on energy and gas prices from now until November: Bring it on.
After playing defense on energy just six months ago, Democrats express confidence Obama has parried attacks of “Drill, baby, drill” from the Republican Party.
“We have nothing to be afraid of when we’re getting attacked simply by rhetoric and statements that take us back to the ‘Drill, baby, drill’-only program of Sarah Palin and her people,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told The Hill on Tuesday. “We feel good about where we are.”
Democrats believe Obama has made inroads by touting his support for expanded oil-and-gas drilling as part of a wider energy strategy heavy on green energy and efficiency.
They think they have blunted GOP attacks on energy — which Republicans traditionally have seen as a strength of their party — in part by more tightly embracing fossil fuels. Their 2012 platform embraces a wide array of energy options — four years after the party made multiple references to the “tyranny” of oil.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said Republicans and Romney had helped Democrats by shifting to the right on climate issues.
But Markey added that Obama had also passed a basic competency test on energy policy that had tripped up other incumbents — including two Republicans.
“I don’t think for a second that Gerald Ford would have lost if he had a better command of the energy issues in 1976,” said Markey, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “I think the skyrocketing energy prices of 1991 and ’92 were the fatal blow to George Bush, actually.”
Democrats have not always been unified on energy issues in recent years — see the cap-and-trade debate, for instance — and they still face a number of political land mines in the months to come.
While Obama might have staved off a potentially debilitating loss of enthusiasm among green activists when he put a permitting decision on the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline on ice until 2013, the decision opened him to attacks from Republicans.
Some centrist Democrats have criticized the decision, which could be an issue in tight Senate races in Montana and North Dakota.
Democrats also have seen gas prices rise some 20 cents per gallon over the last month — a warning sign for Obama. Romney zoomed to the lead over Obama on energy issues in the spring when gas prices last spiked. When The Washington Post polled voters at the time, he held a 47-42 edge.
With all that in mind, not all convention-goers this week felt quite as good about where the party stood going into November.
“I think as people see their overall energy picture, they start to say, ‘Is it better or worse?’ And it’s about the same,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who has broken with his fellow Democrats on issues like tax breaks for the oil-and-gas industry.
“So it’s not like either side is going to get a high score,” he said.