Few voters are buying into John Kerry’s campaign attacks that President Bush is responsible for rising gasoline prices, according to polls that show most Americans blame oil companies, the war in Iraq, OPEC and growing worldwide demand for fuel.
Not only are Mr. Kerry’s political charges having little effect thus far — recent polls show that only about 5 percent of voters blame Mr. Bush — the Massachusetts senator is coming under fire from some liberal journals and election analysts who say the president is blameless in the gas price explosion.
“While Kerry’s near-obsessive invoking of gas prices seems aimed at conditioning voters to curse Bush’s name every time they pull up to the pump, the rise in gasoline prices isn’t really Bush’s fault,” said the New Republic magazine in last week’s issue.
Pollsters, too, say that despite the rise in average gas prices across the country to more than $2 per gallon, it does not appear to be turning into the vote-getting issue Mr. Kerry hoped it would.
“So far the voters are not blaming Bush,” said independent pollster John Zogby.
“If gas prices continue to go up a little bit, you’ll see families grousing on the 12th day of their vacation and sacrificing their jet skis fees. Meanwhile, they are driving an SUV with a U-Haul. It’s just not showing up as a major concern in my polls,” Mr. Zogby said.
As gas prices have risen, drawing increasing attention on the nightly TV news shows, Mr. Kerry and the Democrats have sought to turn it into a campaign issue that can move his polls, which have been stalled for the past month or more.
“George Bush has no plan, doesn’t address it, doesn’t seem to care that every American family is paying more to go to work, for the products that they get, to be able to get to school, to be able to do all the things Americans do in the course of a summer,” Mr. Kerry said last week.
However, Mr. Kerry and Democratic officials often appear to be contradicting themselves on the issue.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe called on Mr. Bush to “pick up the phone and call the Saudis” to persuade them to cut prices. But Mr. Kerry, who charged recently that Mr. Bush had a secret scheme worked out with the Saudis to reduce oil prices well before the 2004 elections, called such a move “outrageous and unacceptable.”
So far, though, Mr. Bush appears to have moved ahead of the curve on the oil prices issue. The Saudis have already confirmed that they will boost oil production considerably in the months to come, a move that has already helped to ease oil market prices that had exceeded $40 a barrel.
That is unlikely to reduce gasoline prices much, if at all, over the coming months. Even so, Bush campaign advisers say the Saudis’ move shows that the president has begun to convince some major OPEC oil producers to cut oil prices — the biggest factor in the price of gas.
One of Mr. Kerry’s proposals in the gas price debate has been to release some of the oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve that the government has stored for times of national emergency. Mr. Bush, however, has argued that such a move would endanger the country in the event of a sudden cutoff or reduction of oil from the Middle East.
Virtually all energy analysts say that selling off some of the reserves would have very little if any affect on gas prices. Last week, election analyst Charlie Cook called Mr. Kerry’s proposal “stupid, ridiculous and totally irresponsible.”
The nation’s recovering economy has been another factor that may help to mitigate the negative impact of rising gas prices and further ease their political impact as well.
The Commerce Department reported last week that personal income rose 0.6 percent in April, following a 0.4 percent rise in March — a signal that consumers will have more to spend in the future to help them absorb higher gas prices.
Another sign that could help the White House weather the spike in gas prices is that Americans “are somewhat more optimistic now than they were two months ago” that the increases at the pump will be temporary, according to the Gallup Poll.
Still, Mr. Zogby cautioned that gas prices could become an issue for Mr. Bush if they are “tied to something else. For example, if we begin to see inflation raising its ugly head, then gas prices will become one of the significant reasons causing that. Or if the economy is still perceived as bad by many Americans, gas prices can be an issue.”
“It can’t stand by itself. It has to be tied to something else,” he said.