* McCain says offshore drilling a state issue
* Obama knocks McCain on nuclear power plan
* McCain says nuclear energy is safe
By Steve Holland
RIVERSIDE, Calif., June 24 (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful John McCain on Tuesday defended his switch in favor of U.S. offshore oil drilling after a biting critique from Democrat Barack Obama and complaints in green-friendly California.
McCain said in Riverside that he believed strongly that lifting a U.S. ban to allow offshore drilling would be a way of "bridging the gap" while the United States adopts a new energy policy aimed at weaning itself from foreign oil.
But he said it should be left up to individual states to decide whether to allow offshore drilling and he noted that his biggest supporter in California, popular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was against the idea.
"I respect that, if that's the view of the people of this great state," McCain told a fundraising lunch in Riverside.
Environmental groups have long opposed expanded offshore oil drilling, raising concerns about the dangers to fragile ecosystems as well potential for oil spills that could mar the U.S. coastline.
With Americans suffering from record oil prices, both candidates for the Nov. 4 election are focusing on the issue.
Obama, addressing supporters in Las Vegas, ridiculed McCain for having said on Monday that offshore drilling would produce no immediate relief to high gasoline prices but could have a beneficial "psychological impact" on U.S. consumers.
"'Psychological impact,'" Obama said. "In case you were wondering, that's Washington-speak for, 'It polls well.'"
When McCain appeared earlier with Schwarzenegger at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, a group of protesters took issue with the candidate over offshore drilling, chanting "Get oil out" and holding up such signs as, "Not off our coast" and "We can't drill our way out of the energy crisis."
Inside, during a round-table discussion, McCain heard complaints from a panelist seated beside him, Michael Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. Feeney did not specifically mention McCain.
"It makes me nervous to think about those who are proposing to drain America's offshore oil and gas reserves as quickly as possible in hopes of driving down the price of gasoline," Feeney said. Santa Barbara was the site of a major oil spill in 1969.
Obama, too, criticized McCain's proposal to encourage the building of 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030. He said it lacked a plan for waste storage and was among several energy-strategy ideas that Obama said were "not serious energy policies."
Obama spoke in Nevada, a state where proposals to build a nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain have generated strong opposition. He also took aim at McCain's plan to allow more offshore oil drilling.
"It doesn't make sense for America," the Illinois senator said. "In fact, it makes about as much sense as his proposal to build 45 new nuclear reactors without a plan to store the waste some place other than right here at Yucca Mountain."
McCain quickly returned fire on Obama, saying he had gone from opposing nuclear power to now saying it is worth exploring. "He has shifted his position on a number of issues since he won the nomination of his party," McCain said.
'EUROPEANS ARE DOING IT'
McCain also defended his plan to jump-start the building of new nuclear reactor plants for meeting America's rising energy demands.
"The technology is there. The Europeans are doing it. It's safe," McCain said.
As for Obama, McCain told reporters in Riverside: "It's easy to say no to everything. That's what Sen. Obama is doing."
The U.S. energy crisis has taken center stage in the presidential campaign as Americans, accustomed to inexpensive fuel, struggle to pay for $4-a-gallon gasoline that has not only made the daily commute to work more expensive but also increased the price of goods and services on down the line.
McCain believes he has a chance to win Democratic-leaning California in the November election and is courting independent voters to help him.
But Democrats are trying to use his policy reversal on offshore drilling to portray him as a Republican who, if elected president, would simply continue the policies of unpopular President George W. Bush.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, editing by David Storey and Eric Beech)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)