- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 11, 2004

Soaring gasoline prices are taking a bigger bite out of consumer incomes, but have shown little or no sign of becoming a major issue against President Bush’s re-election campaign, pollsters said Friday.

Still, energy analysts say gas prices that are nearing or surpassing $2 a gallon in many parts of the country will be even higher this summer, sharply raising business costs and prices that could force consumers to cut back on other things.

“Elections are not won or lost by gas prices. Americans do have a larger world than what’s in the tank of their car,” said pollster John Zogby. “If things generally seem to be going in the right direction but gas prices are high, that’s not going to bust up a presidency.

“It’s an important factor in a supporting role. It’s not a factor unto itself. I recently did a national poll that asked voters to name their most important concerns and gas prices didn’t show up,” Mr. Zogby said.

Concerns about gas prices have been crowded out by larger issues.

“Gas prices are important to people, but the mix of issues that people are presently dealing with are just more important, especially jobs, health care, education and the security and safety of the country,” said Republican campaign pollster David Winston.

“If prices continue to rise, its importance will increase and that will bring the whole energy issue front and center again,” he said.

AAA’s state-by-state price tracking system shows pump prices are hitting record levels, especially in key states that will be critical to Mr. Bush’s re-election prospects.

Regular gas prices were averaging $1.78 a gallon in Michigan, $1.74 in Ohio, $1.70 in New Hampshire, $1.74 in Pennsylvania and $1.82 in Wisconsin. In California, they were more than $2.15 a gallon. In Nevada, $2.06.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has begun to hit Mr. Bush’s oil policies more frequently lately, accusing him of collusion with the oil industry.

“For three years, George Bush and Dick Cheney have bent over backwards to help their big contributors in the oil industry,” Mr. Kerry said last week at a rally in San Diego.

The Bush campaign struck back with TV ads that attacked Mr. Kerry for suggesting in 1994 that the gas tax should be raised by 50 cents a gallon, a position he eventually retracted.

“Maybe John Kerry just doesn’t understand what his ideas mean to the rest of us,” the ad says.

That wasn’t the only time the liberal senator supported higher gas taxes. “He has voted on 10 separate occasions to raise gas taxes,” said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt. “Time after time his first instinct is to raise taxes.”

Mr. Kerry wants Mr. Bush to persuade the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to boost production, which would reduce oil prices, and to sell off some of the government’s strategic oil reserves.

“Candidate Bush talked about making America energy independent, but Bush has made us more dependent on foreign oil from the politically volatile Middle East,” said Kerry campaign spokesman David Wade.

Selling off some of the nation’s oil reserves, however, has not brought prices down in the past.

Mr. Bush wants to make the United States more energy independent by, among other things, encouraging more domestic drilling in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — which Mr. Kerry opposes.

Meanwhile, energy industry analysts point out that while gasoline prices are high now, they were much higher in the 1970s and early 1980s when adjusted for inflation. The average cost for a gallon of gas in 1980, when computed in 2004 dollars, was $2.82.

But business lobbyists predict that gas prices are going to rise more in the coming months and consumers are going to be pinched both at the pump and in the cost of everything else they buy.

“My hunch is that in the not-too-distant future we will all feel and see this at the supermarket or at the mall — 80 percent of everything is delivered by truck. We are going to pay more,” said Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “There is no easy fix to this.”

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