[pagebreak:McCain, Obama, Clinton Reps Talk Energy] At an environmental-business conference in California last week, representatives from the three presidential candidates’ campaigns debated energy policy -- and then the audience voted. 

In the on-the-spot election, complete with a recount that flipped the top two spots, the results were as follows: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won with 42 percent of the votes, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., came in a close second with 41 percent, and Sen. Hilary Clinton, D-N.Y., lagged behind at 17 percent.

The session at The Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics conference was hardly a proxy for the real election, as it didn’t include a random selection of likely voters. But it might be considered a snapshot of how attendees -- mainly businesses interested in "the relationship between the environment and the bottom line" -- felt after hearing about candidates’ energy plans.

"With The Wall Street Journal crowd, you never know how much of it has to do with the fact that they just hate Hilary, period," said Joel Makower, editor of GreenBiz.com. "It’s hardly scientific."

While it’s unclear how much this audience’s sensibilities reflect those of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial department, Makower said, the support of McCain might make sense considering the Journal favors nuclear power and what it claims is a free market – a market that, according to Makower, actually supports continuing subsidies for fossil fuels while not adding them for renewables.  

Still, he said, it’s a little bit surprising there would be such a gap between Obama and Clinton.

"Their policies aren’t that different," he said. "I would expect to see a bigger gap between Obama and McCain. McCain is among the more enlightened Senators when it comes to climate change, but I don’t have a sense he’s that much more enlightened than the incumbent when it comes to alternative fuels and clean technology."

During the session, the three candidates’ representatives discussed both the similarities and differences between their bosses.

All three support a carbon cap-and-trade program, leading Fred Krupp, president of nonprofit Environmental Defense, to call such a system "inevitable."

Proposals by Clinton and Obama both call for a system that could auction off 100 percent of emissions permits, which they claim would cut carbon-dioxide emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. McCain’s plan would reduce emissions by 65 percent by 2050, according to USA Today.

Of course, all those targets are set for years long after whichever candidate wins the presidency will have left office, said Alan Murray, online executive editor of The Wall Street Journal.

[pagebreak:Climate Campaign: Continued]

"No one is suggesting we sit on our butts for 41 years," replied Douglas Holtz-Eakin, policy director for the John McCain 2008 campaign.

Jason Grumet, principal energy advisor for the Obama Presidential Campaign, said he thinks putting a price on carbon -- even if it comes with higher fuel prices at the pump -- is necessary to face the global-warming crisis.

When asked if a cap and trade amounted to a tax increase, Grumet snapped: "Is requiring an air bag in cars a tax increase? You can have the ‘Lord of the Flies,’ or you can have a government."

Meanwhile, Gene Sperling, chief economic advisor for Hillary Clinton for President, said he doesn’t think the "Jimmy Carter approach" of putting sweaters on and saying "’You’re going to have to pay higher prices’" is the best for the candidates, but instead advocated creating a vision of a future full of additional choices.

Sperling said Clinton isn’t ready to embrace additional nuclear power but also isn’t advocating shutting down the nuclear plants already in operation.

"She has said this is not the first option," he said, adding that more research would be needed before any nuclear expansion. 

Grumet said Obama also sees problems with "current" nuclear technology.

"He doesn’t believe current [nuclear] technology should have a rebirth," he said, but added that there also are challenges in bringing other energy sources to massive scales and that "renewable energy alone won’t do it."

McCain, on the other hand, is an unapologetic nuclear-power supporter.

"Why would you want to take off the table technologies that you know will work?" Holtz-Eakin said. "The nuclear problem is a political problem."