Party positions on ANWR shift as election nears

Republican platform drops drilling support; Democrats omit drilling opposition

Posted: Friday, August 29, 2008

Drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge is taking a surprising turn, becoming less political in the midst of an election season.

That may be good news for Gov. Sarah Palin, and her hopes for drilling in the vast North Slope acreage.

"It can be done environmentally safely, with a small footprint thanks to directional drilling, and help bring down the price of gasoline," said Bill McAllister, Palin's communications director.

Palin "remains convinced that that's the right thing to do," he said.

The Republican Party, which is soon to nominate drilling opponent Sen. John McCain as its presidential candidate, has dropped its pro-drilling plank from its party platform. That will help avoid embarrassing McCain at next week's convention in St. Paul, Minn.

McAllister said Palin discussed the issue with McCain as recently as last Sunday hoping to sway him in support. McCain, in a recent interview, indicated that he might be open to persuasion on that issue.

Palin was unable to persuade him in that meeting, McAllister said.

"Nothing explicitly changed," he said.

The Democratic Party's platform has made a change as well. For the first time, it does not explicitly oppose drilling in ANWR, said Democratic Senate candidate and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.

"That shows the dynamic is shifting," said Begich, visiting Juneau on Thursday on his first campaign trip since winning the nomination Tuesday.

Begich said a Democratic senator from Alaska would be best positioned to persuade members of the majority party of the need for ANWR's resources to be developed.

"The Democrats will be in control," Begich said. "There's not one pundit that sees it a different way."

Stevens campaign spokesman Aaron Saunders said Begich was unlikely to persuade Democratic allies of the environmentalists to agree to drilling - if he'd even try.

Begich recently hosted Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, on a visit to Alaska, and in three days never brought up the ANWR issue.

"I don't think that's much of a track record at trying to encourage colleagues at switching their votes," Saunders said.

While Sens. Stevens and McCain have butted heads on some issues, Saunders said they've worked together on others and Stevens will have a better chance than anyone else of persuading McCain to support Alaska's position on ANWR.

And McCain himself would be a better choice for Alaska than Democrat Barack Obama because he's expressed a willingness to reconsider his ANWR opposition.

"That's a huge difference between the nominees," Saunders said.

McAllister said the national mood on ANWR drilling may be changing, driven in part by high gasoline prices. However, both the Republican and Democrat candidates are now formally opposed to drilling.

"Obviously it would be helpful if we had a pro-ANWR president, but we have had one for the last eight years and still not been successful," McAllister said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or

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