ANCHORAGE - U.S. Rep. Steve King still bristles recalling the heckler who interrupted his stump speech at the Iowa State Fair, thousands of miles from his touchy subject - drilling for oil in the Alaska wilderness.
Standing on a bale of straw, the freshman Republican from western Iowa was listing his reasons for supporting the Bush administration proposal to tap oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - how drilling didn't have to harm the environment, how caribou have thrived alongside North Slope production.
Suddenly, a man started shouting, "Liar!"
"In the end I prevailed on the facts," King recalled about the mid-August exchange. "The point is you shouldn't trust the people who spread misinformation. The more discussion there is, the more informed people will be."
There's plenty of talk about the Arctic refuge on the campaign trail in the Lower 48, from Colorado to Connecticut to Louisiana. Whether congressional candidates across the country support or condemn oil drilling, they are weighing in on the issue, in speeches and debates, in interviews and forums.
No matter that front-runners in Alaska's fiercely contested U.S. Senate race both favor drilling in a section of the 19.5 million-acre refuge, or that the oil industry no longer considers it a top priority.
In national politics, the lonely span of tundra high above the Arctic Circle is a tantalizing topic. Even President Bush trumpets his support for drilling in the refuge while Democratic challenger John Kerry slams the idea.
"We've got the rising price of oil, it's an election year, we've got the war in the Middle East, we've had hurricanes that disrupted drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Right now, oil is on people's minds," said Jerry H. Boyle, running in Wisconsin's open 4th Congressional District race.
Unlike most Republicans already in Congress, Boyle opposes opening up the refuge.
"Some people think that one way to lower oil prices is to drill in ANWR and I just don't believe that," Boyle said. "I think we need to make sure we balance business interests with environmental concerns. It goes beyond a simple pipeline. Drilling leaves a large footprint."
Supporters contend drilling would contribute to national energy independence. Plus it's possible to do so while protecting the environment, contends Iowa incumbent King, who visited the area with Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, in the summer of 2003.
"One of the things I learned is that tundra can be restarted if it's disturbed," he said. "Another is, there are no trees there - there's not a tree for hundreds of miles. I think this is a misunderstanding that's been intentionally fostered. The whole thing's become a political issue, not something based on sound science."
Critics contend development would devastate fragile habitat used each summer by millions of migrating birds and thousands of calving caribou - all for a relatively small amount of oil. The coveted area is estimated to contain as much as 16 billion barrels of oil, but production would only modestly reduce America's dependence on oil imports, according to an Energy Department analysis.
Joyce Schulte, King's Democratic challenger, said she favors developing better fuel efficiency and relying more on nonpetroleum fuels, such as soy diesel. The Arctic refuge is not a permanent solution.
"It's an important issue nationally," Schulte said. "We move a tremendous amount of fuel product for motorized vehicles. Only the Amish travel by horse-and-buggy. The rest of us depend on some form of fuel-driven vehicles."
Supporters include Alaska's Senate front-runners, Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski and Democratic rival Tony Knowles, a former two-term governor who pledged to buck the traditional Democratic opposition to ANWR development.
Murkowski pushes her GOP roots as an edge, saying that the more Republican candidates are elected to both chambers of Congress, the better chance ANWR drilling has for becoming a reality. Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate, where 43 Republicans currently support drilling in the refuge while 43 Democrats oppose it.
Knowles says he would be an independent voice, even if it means standing up to his own party and working across party lines.
"I understand the importance of developing Alaska's oil and gas," he says. "Opening ANWR is about creating good-paying jobs for Alaskans and providing America with a steady and reliable source of domestic energy."
Amid the debate, the oil industry no longer is lobbying to open drilling in the refuge to compensate for diminishing Prudhoe Bay reserves. There are too many opportunities globally: Russia, Indonesia, South America, deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
"It's probably a super sexy issue in politics because it's more a question for the future of the United States than it is for the future of the oil industry," said Judy Brady, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
"Oil companies are the last of the subsistence hunters. Wherever there's oil, that's where they go," she said. "If ANWR is not open, they'll go somewhere else. If ANWR is open, they'll go there. And who benefits from that is the U.S."
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