As gas prices soar, Democrats ready for political profit

Republicans, worried about midterm elections and voter ire, hold bad field position.

As a political issue, it's difficult to overestimate the impact of high gasoline prices. For Republicans, who control both Congress and the White House, good news on the economy's big picture seems to fade into the background as motorists fume over the cost of a fill-up.

For Democrats, the only political danger may come if voters feel the party appears too gleeful at Americans' pain. But for now, the party has been handed an issue that's almost a sure winner as it seeks to retake Congress in the fall midterms, analysts say.

"It's hard to overstate the pocketbook impact" of gas prices, says John Mercurio, senior editor of the Hotline, National Journal's political newsletter. "The Democratic Party senses a perfect storm in scoring political points on this issue."

He believes prices would have to fall below $2.50 a gallon for the issue to lose its impact. And what if prices reach $4? That's a "nightmare for Republicans," says Hotline editor in chief Chuck Todd.

As much as GOP politicians strived last week to shift at least some blame to Democrats, arguing that they blocked energy legislation in Congress for years, there's no sign the public is buying that argument.

"The Republicans have two disadvantages here," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California and former GOP aide. "They have unified control of government; there's no Democratic House to blame. And second, many prominent Republicans have close ties to the energy industry. Even though those ties have nothing to do with the spike in gas prices, it's too tempting a target to pass up."

Democrats are wasting no opportunities to pound the Republicans on gasoline prices. In his party's weekly radio address Saturday, Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan mocked the GOP: "From this Republican-controlled Congress, we hear more of the same: 'Let's just drill our way to energy independence, sacrifice our environment, and provide tax breaks to Big Oil."

He was alluding to Republican proposals that include a renewed effort to gain approval for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, plus short-term measures President Bush announced last Tuesday. Among them, the president announced a suspension of US government fuel purchases for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which would leave a little more oil available to the market, he said. He also proposed a relaxation of environmental rules related to the formulation of gasoline and a repeal of $2 billion in tax incentives for the oil industry that were part of energy legislation signed into law last year.

Some lawmakers have proposed a windfall profits tax on oil companies, which are reaping massive profits, but Mr. Bush rejects that suggestion. Some members of Congress from both parties also propose a $100 rebate to most taxpayers to help them through the summer driving season.

After promising to look into the possibility of price gouging by energy companies, Bush said on Friday that there was no evidence that was happening. Instead, he called for an expansion of refineries and natural gas pipelines and for greater focus on renewable energy sources.

Energy experts agree there's little the president or Congress can do to effect a major drop in gas prices in the short term. But politics demands action, especially with control of Congress in the balance in the November midterms. A shift of only 15 seats would hand the Speaker's chair to the Democrats.

With just a fraction of the 435 House seats "in play," one question is whether the gas price spike will affect even battleground races where no incumbent is running for reelection. A high-profile case is in Illinois, where Democrat Tammy Duckworth is running for the seat of retiring Republican Henry Hyde. Her opponent, Peter Roskam, is a state senator.

"It is an issue in the race," says David Axelrod, an adviser to Ms. Duckworth. "Our race is really about changing Washington and the politics of Washington. [The Republicans] produced those tax breaks for oil and gas, and politics in Washington has failed to produce an aggressive alternative energy program.... So there's plenty of room for us to offer an alternative to what already exists."

Hanging over the fall midterms is Bush's low job approval ratings - now firmly in the 30s, even in the polls that are typically more favorable to the president. History shows a correlation between gas prices and low presidential job approval. Presidents Carter and Nixon both sank below 30 percent in their approval ratings during their own gas crises, Gallup notes. When high gas prices hit, "the tendency has been for [Americans] to take out this frustration on government leaders," Gallup reported last week.

The political battle over gas prices played out on all the Sunday morning talk shows. Josh Bolten, Bush's new chief of staff, sought to lower expectations that Washington could do much in the short term.

"This is a very large problem," Mr. Bolten said on "Fox News Sunday" in his first interview since taking over April 14 as Bush's top aide. "It's built up over many years - decades, in fact. It's not going to be solved in the short run by some silver bullet."

Bolten said he didn't know how much the president's plan would lower the price of a of gallon gas. "I expect the effects would be relatively modest," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"All of those policies need to come together because we need to leave behind a legacy in which this country is headed toward weaning itself from its dependence on foreign oil," he said. "We've been going in the wrong direction for years, for decades."

*• Wire services were used in this report.

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