GOP hopefuls hit Obama hard on gas prices

PHOENIX -- For the past several weeks, we've seen signs the economy may be inching up.

That's good news for President Obama and his reelection chances, since the economy is the number one issue for voters, and Republicans have been hammering him on it.

But now there's some bad news for the president: Gas prices continue to rise, and Republicans are blaming him for it. You can expect it to come up in tonight's GOP debate in Arizona.

The average price for a gallon of regular gas is now $3.59, up more than 20 cents in the last month.

Newt Gingrich has made gas prices a centerpiece of his campaign. He's blaming Mr. Obama and promising change. "There is no reason we can't get gasoline down between $2 and $2.50 a gallon," Gingrich asserts.

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Rick Santorum also blames Mr. Obama, saying his decisions, such as limiting oil exploration, have led to higher prices at the pump, "all because of the radical environmentalist policies of this president."

Mr. Obama can say there's been some good news lately: Unemployment, for example, rose through much of his term, but is now down to 2009 levels.

Still, since he took office, gas prices have steadily been on the rise. That's a challenge, and a problem.

"Rising gasoline prices can become a very big political issue, because it affects everybody every week," says Daniel Yergin, author of "The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World."

And that's why promising to lower gas prices is standard election fare.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have taken fire on gas prices, and had similar responses: It's not our fault.

Mr. Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, says there are "no magic solutions to rising oil prices and the pain Americans feel at the pump."

Energy economists say, in the short-term, the current price of gas has more to do with world events than anything a politician can accomplish right away. "The reality is there's not a quick domestic fix," Yergin says. "It's really what happens in the world market, and in this rising situation of tension with Iran that will determine it."

To see Jan Crawford's report, click on the video in the player above. Also, Crawford previewed tonight's GOP debate, saying gas prices will undoubtedly be a hot topic, and the debate is shaping up as pivotal. To see her analysis, click on the video below:

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.