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Thu, Feb. 20

High gasoline prices remain on back burner

WASHINGTON – Soaring gasoline prices are taking a bigger bite out of consumer incomes, though pollsters say they have yet to become a major election-year issue for voters.

"Elections are not won or lost by gas prices," says 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."

In fact, gas prices didn't rate when Zogby recently polled Americans about their most important concerns.

"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," says GOP pollster David Winston. "But if prices continue to rise, its importance will increase and that will bring the whole energy issue front and center again."

And rise they will, pushing up prices for just about everything we buy, say business economists. "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," says Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's chief lobbyist. "We are going to pay more."

The White House has been keeping a close watch on the issue as gas prices have approached or passed $2 per gallon in many parts of the country, and likely will rise more this summer as the presidential race rounds the critical homestretch. That has Republican strategists plotting a "put up or shut up" vote on domestic oil exploration in the coming months as administration officials increase pressure on OPEC countries to increase their production quotas to reduce world oil prices, the biggest factor in the high price of gas at the pump.

The average price of regular gasoline hit nearly $1.79 last week, up more than 10 cents from a year ago, according to the Energy Information Administration. But prices vary from state to state, and are especially severe in key battleground states that will be critical to President Bush's re-election prospects.

A gallon of regular gas in Michigan was averaging $1.78. It was running $1.74 in Ohio, $1.70 in New Hampshire, $1.74 in Pennsylvania, $1.82 in Wisconsin, $1.80 in Florida and $1.88 in Washington state. In California, which has the most restrictive environmental regulations in the country, gas was more than $2.15 a gallon. In Nevada, $2.06.

Bush's home state of Texas, where regulations are minimal, offers gas at $1.65 per gallon. In Oklahoma, another big oil state, it's $1.61.

Bush came into office with a plan to make us more energy independent by expanding domestic drilling for oil, as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s. According to government research, we have lots of oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other public lands that can be extracted with no harm to the environment, but Kerry and his friends killed the idea in the Senate – voting against ANWR drilling.

If the issue heats up, Republican leaders plan to bring up the ANWR oil production proposal again, forcing Kerry and other drilling opponents to vote it up or down. "Here's a supply-side way to make us less dependent on foreign oil and to reduce oil prices, too," says a top administration official. "It will be a put up or shut up vote aimed at Kerry."

We'll see if the senator can double-talk his way out of that one.

Copyright 2004, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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