The Pinch Of The Pump

For once, the cliché "double-edged sword" applies: high gas prices are an issue that cuts this year's presidential campaign in a bipartisan way.

From one angle, the current price squeeze at the pump - particularly in vote-rich Midwestern battleground states such as Illinois and Ohio - spells bad and untimely economic news for Al Gore, the Democratic vice president running on "progress and prosperity."

Yet from another angle, those same prices are a land mine for George W. Bush, Gore's Republican rival. The Texas governor is a former oilman with many friends in the business. And a lot of Bush's campaign seed money over the years has come from the oil and gas industries.

This election year is no different: Bush's campaign donations from those industry interests are 15 times that of Gore's. According to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics (a watchdog group), Bush has collected $1.54 million in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests. Gore has received less than $100,000.

Bush has "got to make sure he doesn't sound like an apologist for the oil companies," warned Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "For voters in the Upper Midwest who aren't inclined to vote for a Southern governor, if they see him as a cheerleader for the oil companies, that's a political negative."

And if the electoral fumes from the gas price issue blow the wrong way for Bush, that in turn could underscore an unflattering aspect of his Lone Star State record.

Texas' environmental record is nothing to brag about, either," said Greg Valliere, a political economist with Schwab Washington Research Group in Washington, D.C. Exhibit A: Houston now tops Los Angeles as the smog capital of the nation.

Gore has rolled out an environment and energy plan that's no doubt meant to highlight Bush's weaknesses. The proposal includes tax breaks to spur greater use of more energy-efficient technologies, from solar power in homes to hybrid gas-and-electric cars to cleaner, less costly power plants. Gore's campaign claims the plan will cut pollution, curb global warming, and lessen America's need for foreign oil. The Bush camp has labeled the package a "political reflex" to the Midwest's high gas prices and a retooled rehash of previous White House proposals.

Yet, perhaps conscious of his vulnerabilities, Bush has been mostly mute about those prices. Sure, at times he's blasted the Clinton administration for lackluster oil diplomacy and excessive environmental regulations, accusing it of creating a new "energy crisis." Even so, he's also seconded Gore's call for a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) probe into possible price gouging and industry collusion behind the sticker shock at the gas pump.

One Republican strategist not working for the Bush campaign agreed that the GOP standard-bearer indeed has to watch his step.

Scott Reed, who managed Bob Doe's 1996 presidential bid, said Bush can avoid any sticky dilemmas by having "Republican governors in these Midwest states raising hell" about gas prices for him. "Let the surrogates do the lifting" for Bush, suggested Reed, since those GOP governors are closest to those voters, are popular with them, and have the most credibility with them.

Sound off on the politics of soaring gas prices on the Campaign 2000 bulletin board!

As for Al Gore, high gas prices conjure the specter of "It's the economy, stupid," hurting his White House chances if they stay high into the fall.

Gore's challenge is to ensure the Clinton administration "is on top of this issue and is doing everything it can do to ease this price hike," said Carrick. In that sense, the White House, the FTC, and the EPA could be the cavalry that comes to Gore's rescue - or at least ease his political pain.

To the GOP, that's a case of "been there, done that." Said Reed, "The gas crisis in the Midwest is in direct contradiction of Gore's campaign message" of prosperity. In the spring, the Clinton administration preached it had turned the tide of rising gas prices. Midwest motorists who will vote in November are still feeling the pain now.

"This is a problem that's festered for a couple months. It's not over ..." said Reed, who predicted high prices will linger into the fall. "I'm not sure there's an easy Rose Garden strategy for Gore to have."

But Carrick countered that voters are getting so many reasons why prices are high - OPEC, price gouging, federally mandated reformulated gas, distribution problems - that they haven't made up their mind who to blame, yet.

"Consumers will either take the view that this is caused by the government or this is caused by the oil companies," said Carrick, who's not working for the Gore campaign.

And Valliere cautioned that what goes up could come down - and a drop in gas prices by the fall could boomerang in Gore's favor.

"If gas prices come back down after Labor Day, he can take credit for it. It looks like a potential liabilitfor him now in late June, but by September we could be looking at lower prices and this could be a non-issue for him."

Okay, that's the silver lining. What's the worst case scenario for the vice president?

"We're starting to see some bumps here in the economy - and if that sentiment begins to grow, that's gonna hurt Gore because he was counting on the economy," he said.

In the short term, concluded Valliere, the gas price issue may fuel the "perception that the Gore campaign is still kind of floundering and this doesn't help."

"Gore needs to have two or three really good weeks …," he said, "and you just don't see it."