By JULIE PACE and MATTHEW DALY
HOBBS, N.M. - Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney promised on Thursday to aggressively expand off-shore 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."
That's much the same argument Democrats levy against Romney, whose energy policy favors the oil and gas industry. The former businessman has deep ties to big oil and raised more than $7 million from industry executives during a campaign fundraiser in Texas earlier this week.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith called Romney's energy plan "backward."
"This isn't a recipe for energy independence," Smith said. "It's just another irresponsible scheme to help line the pockets of big oil while allowing the U.S to fall behind and cede the clean energy sector to China."
The cornerstone of Romney's plan is opening up more areas for offshore oil drilling, including mid-Atlantic swing states like North Carolina and Virginia, where it is currently banned. He also wants to give states the power to establish all forms of energy production on federal lands, a significant shift in current policy that could face strong opposition in Congress.
Romney specifically cited drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as part of a broad plan to generate millions of additional barrels of oil each day.
A Romney campaign official later downplayed the comment. The plan would revive a longtime Republican goal to allow drilling for oil in the wildlife refuge. Congress has blocked drilling there for more than a quarter-century.
Romney also plans to approve the Keystone XL pipeline that has worried environmentalists and would run from Canada to U.S. refineries in Texas. And he is calling for the end of a production tax credit for wind power that is set to expire at the end of the year.
Many Republicans in battleground states such as Iowa support the credit, which the American Wind Energy Association says sustains 37,000 jobs.
"I think all energy sources need to stand on their own two feet," Romney said in an interview with a Colorado TV station Thursday, arguing that wind and solar power are subsidized at a higher rate than oil. "I would level the playing field."
Romney's campaign says he does not support ending oil subsidies.
The Obama administration has proposed a plan that would allow energy companies to begin seismic testing to find oil and natural reserves in the Atlantic Ocean. Companies would use the information to determine where to apply for energy leases, although no leases would be available until at least 2017.
The president told donors in New York this week that under his administration, dependence on foreign oil has gone below 50 percent for the first time in 13 years.
While the energy debate dominated the discussion on Thursday, Democrats will continue to pursue the abortion debate to help drive a wedge between Republicans and women.
Obama advisers consider Akin's comments a significant development and plan to continue linking Akin to Romney's running mate, Ryan, who cosponsored a bill with Akin to permanently ban federal funding for abortion except in cases of incest and forcible rape.
That language, which was eventually changed, would have narrowed the exception for rape victims.
Romney does not oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest or if it will save the mother's life, while Ryan does oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest.