It has been called the 800-pound gorilla but it's getting scant attention in the U.S. election. And yet it could well be one of the most pressing issues facing the next winner of the Oval Office.

Energy security, or the nation's ability to procure oil whenever needed, looms large for the current and future president after oil hit $100 a barrel this week and put markets on a razor's edge between supply and demand.

Yet the issue tends to receive only passing mention in candidates' stump speeches, save for crowd-pleasing references to ethanol in the corn-growing states such as Iowa as a means of weaning America off evil foreign oil.

Everyone's making the usual comments but none of the candidates has offered any practical details, said Anthony Cordesman, energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who gives all the candidates poor grades on energy issues.

On a good day you could give the best candidate a D-, but on most days you'd give them all an F+, he said.

President George W. Bush signed a new energy bill into law last month and while it makes significant strides boosting auto fuel efficiency and will render Edison's light bulb obsolete, it is still seen as incremental and long-term in battling America's oil addiction.

Growing economies such as China are now competing directly with the United States for energy supplies and there is heightened concern that another Katrina-sized hurricane or a successful attack on a Mideast oil installation could upset the delicate balance.

Anything could change the dynamics, said William Kovacs, the Chamber of Commerce's vice president for energy and environment.

We are as close to an imbalance as you can get. You could have a supply disruption almost anywhere; you could have OPEC cutting back; you could have civil war in Pakistan spilling over; you could have pipelines being cut off in Europe. You name it, it's there.

Besides the long-term goals of conservation and developing alternative fuels, the U.S. government needs to focus on the flow of energy supplies in the short run as well.

Kovacs despairs that the White House hopefuls show little concern over the immediate threats to energy security.

You name me one candidate who is talking about supplies of energy which is what energy security is: Can we get the energy when we need it?


But with homeowners already paying record winter heating oil prices and gasoline forecast to hit a record $3.40 a gallon nationwide this spring, the candidates may tap into consumer angst over energy issues.

Mike Huckabee and the Republican field tend to back market solutions on energy issues while Democrats such as Barack Obama support capping carbon emissions and tougher fuel efficiency for Detroit.

But analysts do not believe there is a sense of urgency among politicians in tackling the big issues.

I do not believe these challenges are insurmountable but it's unlikely we can address them within the prevailing political mind-set that has proven to be incapable of more than incremental action on energy security. Sen. Richard Lugar, the outspoken Indiana Republican, said in a mid-December address to the Brookings Institution.

In the absence of technological breakthroughs that expand energy supplies for billions of people worldwide, it will be exceedingly difficult to meet the world's energy needs, he added.

To be sure, not all analysts are wringing their hands over energy security.

Robert Ebel, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, does not think it will be a major issue for Americans when they head for the voting booths.

It's important, but I wouldn't put it at the top of the list, he said, adding Americans care more about education, health care, or the price of goods.

But Alan Greenspan disagrees. In his book the The Age of Turbulence, the former Federal Reserve chairman created a stir when he said that the Iraq war was really about oil and that not acknowledging the highly precarious environment of the Middle East was akin to ignoring an 800-pound primate in our midst.

He thinks gasoline taxes should be boosted by $3 a gallon over a five-to-10-year period to curb consumption and encourage alternative fuels, even if the move is unpopular.

I consider the argument that gasoline tax hikes are politically infeasible irrelevant. Sometimes the duty of political leadership is to convince constituencies that they are just plain wrong. Leaders who do not do that are followers.