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Strategy Memo: It's A Gas

Good Tuesday morning. Journalism lost a giant yesterday when Bob Novak, conservative columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness, announced his immediate retirement to fight a brain tumor, the Washington Post writes. We can only hope he's back soon. Here's what else Washington is watching this morning:

-- The Senate sits down for a pro forma session in order to prevent President Bush from making any recess appointments, while the House remains out of service. Republican members of Congress are planning to return to Washington in shifts over the August recess, several told Politics Nation, in order to keep up the pressure on offshore oil drilling. Bush is in South Korea, where he will meet the media with President Lee Myung-bak, who with First Lady Kim Yoon-ok will host a social lunch.

-- Barack Obama will head to Ohio today for an energy town hall meeting, during which he will slam John McCain for what he calls a flawed energy policy, according to the prepared remarks. Obama's also up with a new advertisement hitting his rival for failing to fix the process after almost three decades in Washington, while Democratic groups are questioning the legitimacy of some donations from oil company employees to McCain, the Washington Post's Matthew Mosk writes. It's true, McCain did reap millions in donations from oil executives when he reversed his position on offshore drilling, and while energy has been mostly a positive for the Republican, taking the money has left him open to criticism.

-- But Obama himself is clearly feeling the heat on energy and gas issues, as one of the most obvious reversals of position he's committed so far this year. Obama said yesterday in Lansing that he now supports releasing some of the stockpiled oil at the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to lower gas prices now, the LA Times' Nicholas and Hook write, just a few days after he said he, too, would back at least some offshore drilling as part of a comprehensive energy proposal.

-- Energy is almost unique among issues on which one might change a previous position. McCain was against subsidies for ethanol and against offshore drilling eight years ago, but back then people were filling up at a dollar a gallon. Even when Obama came to office, the price per barrel of oil was just over a third of what it is today. Such dramatic changes force a candidate to rethink a position, and could also give them the opportunity to explain such a growth of opinion as a demonstration of a maturity and ability to be president. Or, as they probably will do, they can both slam the other for "flip flopping."

-- The biggest loser in the whole process: House Democrats. As Republicans stay in Washington to drive up talk of quick fixes, offshore drilling and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as Obama and McCain start accepting more drilling and energy exploration options, and even as some Democrats like Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire start to publicly call for votes, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has to be feeling the heat. Altmire, an endangered freshman, will be joined by colleagues who are nervous about their own political future. What is most likely is that September will be spent on some form of energy package, not all of which is going to be to Pelosi's liking.

-- Meanwhile, in more practical considerations, Obama continues working to expand the presidential map beyond traditional red and blue states, as Tom Bevan noted yesterday. Among the most ambitious of those expansion plans is the notion that Alaska voters will back Obama, which would make only the second time Alaskans have voted Democratic for president in the state's brief history. The Post's Karl Vick points out today that a state with such an independent streak, and where McCain finished last in the Super Tuesday caucuses, gives Democrats hope, especially given Obama's commitment of resources. If Obama wins Alaska, though, he's going to carry other red states too, making McCain's path to 270 almost impossible.

-- But it's not just Alaska that is giving Republicans fits. Across the nation, more voters are registering with the Democratic Party as the GOP shrinks, the New York Times' Steinhauer writes today. In once-swing Oregon, Democrats have gained 4.5% of the state's voters while Republicans have lost 2.5%; Iowa showed a 4.1% swing to Democrats and a 0.8% loss for Republicans. New Hampshire, New Mexico and Pennsylvania have shown similar swings. Only Kentucky, Louisiana and Oklahoma, none states in which Obama will seriously compete, have shown Republican gains and Democratic losses. The first signs of a fundamental shift? It's compelling evidence, and frightening for the GOP.

-- Photo Opportunity Of The Day: When President Bush landed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska yesterday, he addressed 3,000 U.S. troops stationed in the oft-frigid north, along with one indicted Senator. Bush acknowledged Senator Ted Stevens, per CNN's Elaine Quijano, but of course he didn't say anything about the seven felony counts Stevens faces. Even polls taken after the indictment show Stevens winning a higher percentage of the vote than Bush's approval rating. Frankly, we're not sure which side should have thought twice about being in the same room at the same time -- the guy who faces voters in three months or the guy with a legacy to think about.

-- Today On The Trail: It's all energy, all the time. Obama is on the trail in Ohio, where he hits town hall meetings to talk about energy in Youngstown and Berea, in the western suburbs of Cleveland. McCain will stop by the Enrico Fermi Nuclear Plant in Newport, Michigan, to highlight his own support for expanded energy production.