How gas prices figure into 'big picture' politics

As pump prices break records, Democrats begin an effort to tie them to Bush policies.

So far, the American public isn't blaming President Bush for steadily spiraling gasoline prices. The global oil- producing cartel is the bad guy, in the eyes of most Americans. But in an election year, hot issues usually feed into voter decisionmaking. Democrats are working overtime to make sure $2-plus-per-gallon gas works to their advantage. Republicans are pedaling furiously to keep the blame at bay.

For the Bush administration, with close ties to the Saudis and a president and vice president both from the Texas oil and energy world, the dangers are obvious. The White House and both chambers of Congress sit in Republican hands, making it difficult to assign blame to Democrats. Now the administration is making its first move to bring down prices: At a meeting this weekend in Amsterdam, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham will urge OPEC ministers to boost oil production.

For Democrats, the goal is to get Americans to turn their sights away from OPEC and see rising gas prices in the larger context of economic anxiety. Even with some economic indicators, such as job creation, on the upswing, Democrats are telling voters they're still losing ground, because of higher healthcare, college, and fuel costs.

"OPEC is the big bugaboo," says independent pollster John Zogby. "This right now is not materializing as a stand-alone issue. But it may, especially if gasoline prices are a major tie-in to inflation in general. If other things are going badly, too, such as the war, it could contribute to a snowball effect."

In fluid race, more economic fodder?

In Michigan, one of the battleground states, "people are upset [over gas prices], but not to the degree of pointing blame yet," says Ed Sarpolus, a pollster with Lansing-based EPIC/MRA. "In our research, the [issue] will hit the fan if it gets to $3. In our polling, that's when people say it begins to really, really, really impact their lives."

Just as much of the public still hasn't formed a firm opinion on Democratic candidate John Kerry, sparking a race by both campaigns to set his image in concrete, the rising price of gas - already at $3 a gallon in some parts of the country - has become an object of major political spin.

All week, Democrats have pounded on the issue from various directions. Three Democratic governors, from Arizona, Michigan, and Iowa, held a conference call with reporters Tuesday aimed at folding the gas spike into the country's larger economic challenges.

"Coming from a rural state, I can tell you that the transportation of goods and services across our highways becomes more expensive as gas increases, which means those goods and services become more expensive, which means they become less competitive, as we deal with a very tough global competition," said Gov. Tom Vilsack from Iowa.

Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona complained that the administration lacks planning - long-term or short-term - to decrease dependency on Middle East petroleum. Gov. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan likened the rise in gas prices to a tax increase and demanded "action on behalf of the citizens who live in our states."

The administration, for its part, argues that rising gas prices are a result of surging demand, both here and in Asia, and a sign of renewed prosperity. Furthermore, the Bush campaign asserts, if Senator Kerry had had his way, the public would be paying 50 cents a gallon more for gas, on top of the latest increases, because of his past support for higher gas taxes.

And, says Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt, "Kerry has obstructed efforts to enact a comprehensive energy policy that would ensure a reliable energy supply, key to lowering gas prices."

The administration has withstood Democrats' demands to take oil out of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), saying the SPR is meant for crisis disruptions to the oil supply, not just to mitigate rising prices. Kerry did not join his 20 Senate colleagues in this demand, which analysts say would do little to bring down the prices, though he did suggest that Bush stop adding to the SPR. Oil analysts also note that when President Clinton took oil out of the SPR shortly before the 2000 election, results were mixed.

How gas may spell trouble for Bush

But Democrats, seeing Bush struggle in Iraq, smell opportunity for November - and are happy to tie together Iraq and gas prices. At a campaign appearance in Portland, Ore., earlier this week, Kerry declared: "No young American in uniform should ever be held hostage to America's dependence on oil in the Middle East."

And in California, spiraling gas prices may be killing a Bush campaign dream that the popularity of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could make the state competitive for the president.

As with elsewhere in the country, Californians aren't directly blaming Bush for rising gas prices - now $3 a gallon in Santa Barbara and $2.50 or higher in Los Angeles - but they do see him as not doing anything to hold prices down.

"We had the energy crisis here a couple of years ago, and now there's considerably more suspicion about the Bush administration and its relation to the oil industry here," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick. In focus groups, he says, if you ask people what they think Bush is going to do about gas prices, they laugh.

"I think this is a real sleeper issue in the campaign," says Mr. Carrick, who worked on the presidential campaign of Rep. Dick Gephardt. "It cuts strongly in Kerry's favor."

The Bush campaign's attempt to direct blame at Kerry by highlighting his past support for higher gas taxes shows the campaign is anticipating that the gas issue could spell trouble for Bush, he adds. "It would make no sense otherwise; it just fell out of the sky."

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