FRESNO, California (Reuters) - Republican John McCain said on Monday if elected he would propose awarding a $300 million prize to the auto company that develops a next-generation car battery that weans America off oil.
McCain sought to portray himself as a forward-looking leader on solving the U.S. energy crisis a week after taking heat from Democrats for reversing position and supporting offshore oil drilling.
“Whether it takes a meeting with automakers during my first month in office, or my signature on an act of Congress, we will meet the goal of a swift conversion of American vehicles away from oil,” McCain told a town hall meeting in Fresno, in rural central California.
With Americans reeling from record-high $4-a-gallon gasoline during the prime summer driving season, both McCain and his Democratic opponent in the November election, Barack Obama, are pressing their proposals for tackling energy problems that are dragging down the U.S. economy.
On a day of campaigning in California, a Democratic-leaning state in which McCain hopes to compete in the November election, the Arizona senator sharply criticized Obama’s decision last week not to accept public financing of his campaign.
The decision meant Obama, who had earlier pledged to accept the funding limits of public financing, may raise unlimited amounts from donors, virtually guaranteeing that he will have vast more cash on hand than McCain.
McCain said he was not worried about being outspent, while telling a fundraising event, “I’m the underdog.”
At his news conference, he accused Obama of breaking a promise. “A president’s got to keep his word when it’s popular and when it’s not popular,” he said.
The Arizona senator, 71, who would be the oldest person elected to a first presidential term, finds himself behind Obama in polls but not by a wide margin.
But in a worry for him, a USA Today/Gallup poll published on Monday said voters are most concerned about energy and the economy and they prefer Obama by a double-digit margin on each.
McCain noted that Brazil has largely weaned itself from oil imports by converting most new cars to flex-fuel capacity that use alcohol-based fuels. Brazil went from 5 percent to 70 percent of flex-fuel new cars in three years, he said.
McCain said he would issue a Clean Car Challenge to U.S. automakers.
“For every automaker who can sell a zero-emissions car, we will commit a $5,000 dollar tax credit for each and every customer who buys that car. For other vehicles, whatever type they may be, the lower the carbon emissions, the higher the tax credit,” he said.
And he offered a big reward for whoever comes up with a technological breakthrough: “A $300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars.”
McCain, who has taken steps to distance himself from unpopular President George W. Bush, also seemed to take a dim view of efforts by Bush and others to persuade OPEC nations to lower the price of crude.
“Some in Washington seem to think that we can still persuade OPEC to lower prices — as if reason or cajolery had never been tried before. Others have even suggested suing OPEC — as if we can litigate our way to energy security,” he said.
The Obama campaign held a conference call with reporters to respond to McCain’s energy speech and reacted with skepticism.
Obama economic adviser Jason Furman said over his long career in the U.S. Congress McCain “had the chance to make a difference for energy security and America’s families.”
“And he consistently not only didn’t make a different but has stood in the way of the people like Senator Obama who have been trying to improve our energy security,” Furman said.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles and Jeff Mason; Editing by David Wiessler)
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