Oil prices rose to $96 a barrel this week, and there doesn't seem to be much end in sight. The price, which is virtually the same as the record levels set in 1980, when adjusted for inflation, is starting to be felt at the pumps.

All of which emphasizes again that the nation needs a comprehensive energy strategy designed to reduce dependence on oil and provide greater incentives for alternatives that can keep the economy moving. Unfortunately, energy policy isn't a hot topic on the campaign trail. If any candidate in either party is taking the lead on this, we're not aware of it.

Certainly, each candidate has an energy position, generally something along the lines of helping in the fight against global warming and reducing oil dependency. But no candidate has made energy the center of his or her campaign. Without a workable strategy that rallies the nation, the energy crunch is sure to become the center of many Americans' home budgets. The nation needs more than lip service to the problem.

Analysts are reporting that a surprise drop in the stockpiles of U.S. crude could lead to shortages during the coming winter months. Meanwhile, the price of oil has increased 35 percent just since August.

It's obvious that high oil prices benefit key dictatorships that use oil to pay their bills and to solidify their hold on power. This makes democratic reforms difficult and causes the citizens of free nations to unwittingly strengthen their enemies every time they fill up their cars.

There are alternatives. Coal can be turned into oil fairly easily once expensive facilities are constructed for that purpose. Corn and other crops could be processed into fuels. With the right incentives, hybrid vehicles could be made more accessible, thus reducing their cost.

Each alternative comes with its own set of challenges and negative biproducts. That's why a successful energy policy must be comprehensive and realistic.

To be fair, there are other issues of critical importance to Americans. These include Social Security reform and runaway health-care costs.

These are pressing matters. But only one stares people in the face each day as they fill their cars, and as they watch the nation's enemies getting stronger and richer.