- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2000

Fearing political fallout from skyrocketing gasoline prices, Vice President Al Gore is moving with unusual aggressiveness to demonize oil companies and divert attention from his own environmental and energy policies.

But Texas Gov. George W. Bush is moving just as swiftly to capitalize on what he considers a major political vulnerability Mr. Gore's hostility toward domestic oil exploration and his support for fuel taxes and costly environmental regulations.

The intensity of the debate underscores how gasoline prices have suddenly become the top issue in the presidential campaign. The political stakes are enormous for the vice president because prices are highest in the Midwest, a region he must carry to win the White House.

Hurling terms like "collusion," "price fixing," "price gouging" and "antitrust law violations," Mr. Gore is demanding investigations into what he calls "outrageous" profit-taking by oil firms. His staff and surrogates are trying to link the industry to Mr. Bush, who once ran oil-exploration firms in Texas.

"If voters blame either of the presidential candidates, they will blame the governor of a big oil state whose family has been in the oil business and who has taken millions in campaign contributions from oil companies," said Democratic strategist David Dixon. "They're more likely to blame that sort of person than a vice president who's got a consumer advocate record, who's always been fighting for working families."

He added: "It's hard to make the case of how they're going to pin it on Gore. I don't think it's really going to work."

GOP strategist Scott Reed disagreed.

"This whole election is going to be settled in the Midwest battleground states and you can't have a worse issue laid at the Gore campaign's feet than this," Mr. Reed said. "One of Gore's biggest assets is the state of the economy and its continual growth the old 'Don't Worry, Be Happy' theme.

"But the fact that prices are now two to two-and-a-half dollars per gallon in the very heart of the region that Gore must sweep directly affects his ability to run on a message of prosperity," he added. "I think they got a real problem on their hands."

Republicans are eager to publicly revisit Mr. Gore's long and well-documented record on energy issues and the environment.

• In 1992, Mr. Gore unveiled his book, "Earth in the Balance," which called for the abolition of the internal combustion engine and advocated higher fuel taxes, even though "almost every poll shows Americans decisively rejecting higher taxes on fossil fuels."

• In 1993, Mr. Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to increase the federal gasoline tax by 4.3 cents a gallon. Earlier this year, Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott led an unsuccessful drive to repeal the increase, which he called "the Gore gas tax."

• Mr. Gore has been a driving force behind the Environmental Protection Agency's ambitious implementation of stricter regulations on gasoline, which has pushed up production prices and created a patchwork of contradictory gasoline formulas in various parts of the country. The fragmentation of the market has led to transportation problems that have further increased prices.

• The vice president strongly opposes oil exploration in the Alaskan wilderness and has vowed to oppose offshore drilling even more vigorously than President Clinton. Although these policies increase American dependence on foreign oil, Mr. Gore made the promises to secure endorsements from environmental groups that had favored Bill Bradley during the primary season.

• The Clinton-Gore administration has been reluctant to tap the strategic oil reserve as a way of easing supply problems. Although President Clinton opened the spigot briefly this month in response to intense public pressure, Democrats and Republicans alike have called for greater relief.

In an effort to get out in front of the potentially devastating issue of gasoline prices, Mr. Gore has asked EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to meet with Midwestern governors most affected by the price spike.

But Republicans believe such a meeting will only serve to further link Mr. Gore to the two administration officials seen as most responsible for the spiraling prices.

Mrs. Browner is a particularly close political ally of Mr. Gore. But yesterday, the vice president seemed willing to suspend his long-held support of stricter gas regulations in order to grant relief to motorists and stem political damage.

Mr. Richardson was on the vice president's short list for a running mate until this month. His political stock plunged even further yesterday when he was taken to the woodshed by senators upset over security lapses at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Mr. Gore's denunciation of oil firms intensified yesterday.

"Oil companies profits have just gone up 500 percent in the first part of this year at the same time they were raising these prices by such an extraordinary amount, particularly in the Midwest," he said in Des Moines, Iowa. "If there's evidence of what I suspect there's evidence of, it ought to be dealt with swiftly and harshly."

He added: "We now all learned about what the impact of what this kind of price hike can be, and everybody is feeling it in the pocketbook. I think it's time to put our feet on the brakes of what may well be big oil's price gouging."

Mr. Bush, campaigning in Los Angeles, said the Clinton-Gore administration had failed to persuade oil-producing nations to raise output sufficiently. He also criticized Mr. Gore's opposition to allowing oil exploration in an Alaskan nature preserve.

"I want to remind people that this administration is devoid of an energy policy," the Texas governor said.

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