By Steve Holland
Tue Jun 24, 1:23 AM ET
SANTA BARBARA, California (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain is defending his decision to switch position in favor of U.S. offshore oil drilling as he seeks votes in environmentally conscious California.
In appearances in coastal Santa Barbara and inland Fresno, McCain said on Monday he believed he had made the right decision at a time of record-high gasoline prices but that it would be up to individual states to choose whether offshore drilling is right for them.
McCain was challenged on his position reversal at an unlikely event -- a fundraiser in his honor in Santa Barbara. A participant, Dan Secord, questioned whether he could compete in California against Democratic opponent Barack Obama by advocating drilling for oil off its shores.
"We're really kind of goosey here about oil spills, and we're goosey here about federal drilling and oil lands, which are abundant offshore," he told McCain.
McCain told Secord he believes in a state's right to make such decisions and pointed out that Texas and Louisiana had weathered hurricanes in 2005 that did not lead to oil spills at nearby offshore facilities.
"I think the environmental situation is today -- that we could probably do that," McCain said. "But I don't want to override the state of California."
The U.S. energy crisis has taken center stage in the presidential campaign as Americans, who are used 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.
The issue is following McCain as he emphasizes environmental issues in California. On Monday, he held a news conference in Fresno with a couple of sleek two-seater, electric-powered cars parked behind him.
And on Tuesday, he is to take part in an environmental briefing at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
McCain says the United States should tap some 21 billion barrels of proven oil reserves that are left untouched because of a federal moratorium on offshore exploration and production.
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at http://blogs.reuters.com/trail08/