Newt Gingrich's big Super Tuesday gambit: win the gas pump vote

Ahead of Super Tuesday, Newt Gingrich is hammering Obama for an 'anti-energy policy' and playing up his own plan to reduce gas prices. It's a solid strategy, experts say, but will primary voters bite? 

Evan Vucci/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke in Woodstock, Ga., on Thursday. Ahead of Super Tuesday, Gingrich is hammering Obama for an 'anti-energy policy' and playing up his own plan to reduce gas prices.

Newt Gingrich picked up a golden nugget on the campaign trail ahead of Super Tuesday when someone who approached him said, “Ask Obama about his 9-9-9 plan” – a reference to former candidate Herman Cain's tax-reform proposal.

Mr. Gingrich wrinkled his brow, bemused, and said, “What are you talking about?”

“$9.99 gas.”

With gasoline prices unseasonably high and expected to climb higher, Mr. Gingrich has zeroed in, laser-like, on the issue, perhaps hoping it will instill new life in his flagging presidential campaign ahead of next week's Super Tuesday contests in 10 states. He has already made the bold promise that, if he is elected president, Americans will once again be able to buy gasoline for $2.50 a gallon, and increasingly he is using the issue of soaring gasoline prices to hammer on President Obama and to distinguish himself from his GOP rivals.

“Finding issues where he can draw huge contrasts between Democratic policy and Republican policy has always been Newt's strength, and it's an excellent example of what he's doing right now,” says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, in Atlanta. “And just as a goal, it's one most Americans would applaud as opposed to an attitude of, we need higher gas prices in order to move away from fossil fuel.”

While Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum slug it out for a Super Tuesday win in Ohio, Gingrich has opened up a double-digit lead in his home state of Georgia. The state has the most delegates at stake, and a win here, built upon his $2.50-a-gallon gas plan, could propel another Gingrich come-from-behind run toward the nomination. Under such a scenario, fractious GOP voters would rally around Gingrich and his plan, especially as energy inflation, rising toward $4 a gallon this summer, pinches everyone from long-haul truckers to commuters.

Gingrich's plan is to boost domestic daily production by almost half by promoting drilling in Alaska, off both coasts, the Gulf, and the US interior. (Ohio could become a major oil producer under a Gingrich presidency, he noted on a radio show there Wednesday.) Such strokes of the presidential pen, he says, would quickly move world markets toward cheaper oil, push corner-store pump prices down, and create 1 million new jobs.

“The minute you have a president who says we're never going to bow to a Saudi king, we don't want to be the chief protector of the Strait of Hormuz, that day you would see a dramatic increase in the number of people willing to invest in less expensive oil, and prices would start trending down,” Gingrich said Wednesday. “This [administration]," he added, "has followed a deliberately anti-energy policy that Americans know will crush the economy and crush the family budget.”

Energy experts say it's possible for gasoline prices to return to $2.50 a gallon, or for prices to jump to $4 and beyond. But Gingrich's promise is not necessarily an empty one, they say.

“It's a very big stretch to say that more drilling will get you $2.50 gas, but I would agree that the market will respond immediately” to a major change in US energy policy, says Matthew Lewis at Ohio State University in Columbus, an economist who specializes in gasoline pricing.

Soaring gasoline prices have become a vulnerability for Obama. Just as President Bush once said he had no “magic wand” to reduce gas prices, Obama said last Saturday that he has no “silver bullet” to relieve pain at the pump. Obama also reiterated that domestic oil production has actually increased – largely due to private investment in shale oil above North Dakota's Bakken oil reserves. Moreover, Democrats contend that part of the recent price increase is a result of a stronger US economy driving up demand.

Obama also acknowledged last week that high gas prices are "like a tax straight out of [Americans'] paychecks." But his administration has also explicitly stated that curbing pump prices is not the highest priority. 

Asked Tuesday by Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R) of Mississippi whether the administration's overall goal is to drive down gas prices, Energy Secretary Steven Chu answered, “No, the overall goal is to decrease our dependency on oil” in order to diversify the energy supply and “help the American economy and the American consumers.”

According to a Pew Research/Washington Post poll released Friday, only 1 in 5 Americans mentions Obama when asked to pinpoint the blame for high gasoline prices. In a separate CBS News poll, however, more than half said a president can have an effect on gasoline prices.

The threat of persistently high gasoline prices has led some in the president's own party to suggest other courses of action. This week, Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois said Obama should consider tapping the Strategic Oil Reserve to relieve prices.

We may need it because this is a central issue to economic recovery,” Senator Durbin told The Hill newspaper. “I don’t rule that out if there isn’t a move in the right direction. If it’s going to jeopardize economic recovery, the president should seriously consider it.”

Is Gingrich's strategy to focus on gas prices working? It's probably too soon to tell, though a story this week on the popular news aggregator Drudge Report carried the headline “Lazarus Rising,” as Gingrich's otherwise flagging poll numbers registered a heartbeat.

“With his personal life out of the limelight and his ideas about energy policy front and center, at least a few folks apparently have remembered Gingrich ain’t all bad,” writes Tina Korbe at the Hot Air blog. “Newt Gingrich has engineered two comebacks already. Is a third out of the realm of possibility? Never say never.”

Others are more skeptical.

Gingrich may well win in Georgia next Tuesday, but that and his lone victory in South Carolina may not be enough to recalibrate the race in time for the Texas primary in May, where he has the endorsement of Gov. Rick Perry and where his energy policy could resonate, says William Cunion, a political scientist at the University of Mount Union, in Alliance, Ohio.

“The gas price is a good issue, and we're going to see that play out all the way to November," says Professor Cunion. "But my gut feeling is that, for Gingrich, it's going to come across to a lot of voters as a little bit of pandering – [that] ...  you're making a promise that we don't quite understand, and it seems like a promise you may not be able to fulfill.”

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