A day after saying the U.S. could produce enough renewable energy within 10 years to replace all U.S. imports of Middle East oil -- a goal even he admitted sounded "pie in the sky" -- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said "for the sake of our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we must end the age of oil in our time."
At the beginning of his town hall meeting focused on energy policy at the Austintown Fitch High School this morning, in this blue-collar burg in a pivotal swing state, Obama told the estimated crowd of 2,400 Ohioans, "I can tell this is a feisty group."
But the senator's feistiness was on display as well, as he mocked his Republican opponent's campaign tactics and energy plan, and pushed an aggressive "use it or lose it" strategy for offshore oil leases.
Seeking to shift focus away from the debate over whether oil companies should be permitted to conduct more offshore drilling exploration, Obama said, "Right now, oil companies have access to 68 million acres where they aren't drilling. So we should start by giving them a choice: use it or lose it. Use the land you have, or give up your leases to someone who will."
After Obama noted local gas prices -- $3.70 a gallon, "two and a half times what it cost when President Bush took office" – a member of the audience yelled out: "They had a plan!"
"They had a plan," agreed Obama. "Problem was it was the oil company plan. It was the gas company plan. We need a people plan! And that's why I'm running for president."
Obama also had some words about his opponent.
"John McCain wants to talk about Britney Spears, and Paris Hilton," Obama said, referring to his opponent's TV ad dismissing Obama as a mere "celebrity." "That's his idea of a really relevant campaign. But I don't have time to deal with that mess, because America's facing some serious problems. America's facing some serious challenges."
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee told the crowd how McCain had yesterday in eastern Pennsylvania repeatedly said "we have to drill here and drill now."
"Instead of offering a real plan to lower gas prices, the only energy plan that he's really promoting is more drilling," Obama said. "That's what he talked about yesterday. I want to drill here. I want to drill now. I don't know where he was standing," he said as the crowd laughed. "I think he was in a building somewhere."
He continued to paint McCain as "in the pocket" of oil companies.
"The oil companies have placed their bet on Senator McCain, and if he wins, they will continue to cash in while our families and our economy suffer and our future is put in jeopardy," Obama said, adding that McCain offers "four years more of oil companies calling the shots while hard-working families are struggling."
At one point, asked about his support for high-speed rail, Obama lapsed into what was almost a comedy routine. All he needed was a fake brick wall behind him and a two-drink minimum.
"If you think about the Midwest, think about right here, what we've got is all kind of towns that we could connect," Obama said. "All of these cities are, they basically take in the air about 45 minutes to an hour to fly."
"But by the time you get to the airport," Obama continued, "take off your shoes, get to the terminal, realize that your flight's been delayed two hours, go pay $10 for a cup of coffee, and a sandwich for another $10, come back, you get on the plane, you're sitting on the tarmac for another 25 minutes, you finally take off, you're circling above the city for another half hour, when you land they can't find your luggage, and then you get to where you're going -- by the time it's all done it's a five-hour trip! …So the time is right now for us to start thinking about high-speed rail as an alternative to air transportation, connecting all these cities and think about what a great project that would be in terms of rebuilding America."
Obama found a supportive crowd, and was greeted with cheers when he attacked his opponent for waging a negative and misleading campaign.
"When John McCain's campaign goes out there and starts saying things like I'd rather lose a war to win an election, or when he says that somehow I didn't want to visit the troops in Germany even though every reporter says that's not true, well, you're not trying to solve problems," Obama said.
"All you're trying to do is divide people, so you can win an election. That's nothing to be proud of. Let's have a real honest debate about policies that are going to make a difference in people's lives."
Obama was introduced by Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a former supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who promised, "We will put our heart and soul into every day between now and November 4th . . . to make sure, that this bright, young, energized, compassionate, intelligent, committed, young man by the name of Barack Obama becomes our next president."