EDITOR’S NOTE _ The fifth in a series of stories exploring how key congressional races are playing out in Ohio. This story looks at how energy issues have taken center stage in the 14th District.

MENTOR, Ohio (AP) _ As health care and the war have faded as top campaign issues, congressional candidates such as Bill O’Neill seek to connect with voters on 2008’s hot topic: energy.

“Nothing compares to jobs and energy in 2008,” said O’Neill, a Democratic former judge who is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette in the 14th District in northeast Ohio. “That’s what’s going to define this race.”

Suddenly, as the fuel crisis erupted, nary a serious candidate for Congress was without an energy plan _ an often complex document past candidates could have gone an entire campaign without touching. To drill or not to drill. To tax oil companies or not to tax oil companies. To go green or not to go green.

Energy is complex but, for voters, it’s far from abstract.

“If you put $20 a week in your gas tank then, you put $40 a week in your gas tank,” said Karen Locker, an optician from Mentor who was shopping recently at the Great Lakes Mall. “Add that up for a month and that changes something you’re going to buy.”

“She didn’t take a vacation this year,” laments Eloise Payne, 69, of Warrensville Heights, in sympathy with her sister and shopping partner at a Macy’s one-day sale. “Because of the gas prices,” said Bessie Payne, 70.

“It’s not just drill, drill, drill,” said retired TRW maintenance welder Bill Kopp, 65, angered to have watched both his and his wife’s jobs in the manufacturing sector disappear in the past year. “They’ve got to develop something (related to alternative energy), whether the oil companies develop it or DuPont develops it.”

Hoping to make energy-related inroads against a comfortable Republican incumbent, O’Neill kicked off his campaign at a gas station. He handed out $1.13 to patrons, the price of a gallon of gas when LaTourette took office in 1994.

O’Neill’s second campaign event was held at an abandoned rail station, which he used to make the case for investment in mass transit in the suburb of Willoughby 25 minutes from downtown Cleveland.

This is the political flexibility of the energy debate. It is at once environment, tax policy, the economy, the war and pocketbook issues.

The sprawling 14th District stretches from the commuter-heavy suburbs east of Cleveland, past Perry nuclear plant and the corn-filled fields of rural Geauga County, to the wind farm-friendly tip of Ashtabula County. Here, it’s all relevant.

David Pomerantz, who pushes the global warming issue for Greenpeace, said candidates are coming to realize 2008 for its unique opportunities on the energy front.

“The bottom line is that candidates are starting to see clean energy and energy efficiency as a win-win-win: It ends our addiction to oil, stops global warming and creates jobs,” he said. “So that’s a pretty powerful combination for anybody running for office from either party.”

Full Story: http://www.ohio.com/news/ap?articleID=818494&c=y