HOBBS, N.M. (AP) — Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney promised on Thursday to aggressively expand offshore oil drilling along Virginia, North Carolina and the Gulf of Mexico, changing the subject from social issues like abortion and Medicare that have dominated the debate in the days before the critical Republican National Convention.
Speaking to voters in the heart of New Mexico's oil and gas industry, Romney declared that his energy plans — which include drilling for oil in a federal Alaskan wildlife reserve — would create 3 million jobs and more than $1 trillion in new revenue. And he predicted complete "North American energy independence by 2020," a never-realized goal claimed by presidential candidates for decades.
"That means we produce all the energy we use in North America," Romney said, emphasizing an expansion of oil and gas over wind and solar production. "This is not some pie-in-the-sky kind of thing. This is a real achievable objective."
President Barack Obama did not face voters on Thursday. Instead, he deployed a popular former president, Bill Clinton, to help convince a divided electorate that he simply needs more time to fix the nation's struggling economy. Clinton is expected to speak at the Democratic National Convention next month and play a prominent role in the final months before Election Day.
"We need to keep going with his plan," Clinton says of Obama in a new television ad set to run in eight battleground states.
The push to re-frame the debate comes at a delicate time, sandwiched between the sudden resurgence of abortion in the race and Monday's opening of the Republican National Convention. The event in Tampa is supposed to be all about nominating Romney, emphasizing his plans for the economy and projecting unity. But those plans were disrupted this week by Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri, who said in an interview that victims of "legitimate rape" can biologically avoid pregnancy. Romney, who has relentlessly tried to avoid a fight over social issues, led a chorus of Republican officials who demanded Akin abandon his Senate bid. The congressman has so far refused.
The uproar raises broader concerns for Romney's effort to win over female voters. At the same time, a strengthening tropical storm is forcing Republicans to prepare for big schedule changes or even the possibility of mandatory evacuations. GOP convention planners on Thursday said they are working closely with local officials and are moving forward with the convention as scheduled.
The stakes are high, the outcome uncertain 75 days before voters choose their next president and the majorities of Congress.
Polling suggests that the presidential contest is essentially a tossup, although Obama maintains a slight lead among women. Research also suggests that more voters trust Obama's plans for Medicare than Romney's. It's an advantage that could prove significant given Romney's selection of running mate Paul Ryan, the House budget architect who crafted a controversial plan to transform Medicare into a voucher-like system for future retirees.
But Romney did not mention Medicare or abortion in Hobbs. And he agreed to an interview with CBS' Denver affiliate, KCNC, only under the stipulation that he would not be asked about abortion or Akin's comments.
Instead, the former Massachusetts governor accused Obama of crafting an energy policy designed to benefit campaign contributors.
"He's taken federal dollars, your money, to advance these companies — solar companies, wind companies — $90 billion in so-called green jobs," Romney said of the president, seizing on the administration's investment in the failed solar company Solyndra. "I don't want the government investing in companies, particularly companies of his campaign contributors."