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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry Pumping Up Foreign Oil as Issue

With his crowds angry at surging gas prices, the senator wins cheers with vows to cut dependence.

March 10, 2004|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

John F. Kerry's campaign had billed the town hall meeting as a summit on the urban economy. But the woman at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn had something else on her mind: "Sen. Kerry," she demanded, "what are you going to do about the high price of gasoline?"

"The gas prices are going up, and it's an issue," acknowledged Kerry, before delivering a popular campaign line: "No young American in uniform should ever be held hostage to America's dependence on oil in the Middle East. "

The crowd cheered -- it always does, and loudly, when the Democratic presidential hopeful delivers his pitch on politics and petroleum.

With self-service unleaded gasoline averaging $1.74 per gallon nationally -- and $2.11 per gallon in California -- Kerry plans to make U.S. dependence on foreign oil a major theme of the general election.

The Massachusetts senator has talked for months about America's heavy energy use and what it means for the environment, the economy and national security -- all arguments that seem to resonate more as prices rise with little sign of slowing.

As president, Kerry says, he would promote alternative and renewable energy sources so that by 2020, Americans would be getting 20% of their electricity from those fuels. He also says he would create a $20-billion fund to research new forms of energy.

Democrats think the issue is an area of deep vulnerability for the Bush administration, which has strong ties to the oil and gas industry and led the nation into war with Iraq.

The high price at the pump has been a campaign staple in presidential elections on and off since 1976, when then-President Gerald Ford and his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, grappled with questions about soaring inflation.

This year Democrats have cheered Kerry's proposal that the country pursue alternative sources of energy for environmental and national security reasons. But whether it will be as persuasive with independent and Republican voters remains to be seen.

Kerry isn't proposing any quick solutions that would tamp down the price of gas. But his general message about the U.S. dependency on foreign oil taps into Democrats' suspicions about America's involvement in Iraq, says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter.

Rothenberg thinks Kerry could appeal in the fall to swing voters who feel the pinch of high gas prices.

"The message is right there at the nexus of where economics and war and presidential leadership come together," he said. "It's a good place for Democrats to fight rhetorically."

Republicans, however, say Kerry is being simplistic and negative when he blithely connects blood and oil. And they ask: Why, if he's so worried about foreign energy sources, has he voted against expanded oil exploration within the borders of the United States?

In an e-mail to reporters Tuesday titled "John Kerry: The Raw Deal," the Bush-Cheney campaign noted that Kerry voted against exploratory drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge seven times. "John Kerry is relying on gimmicks to conceal his backward policies of higher taxes, more regulation, higher healthcare costs and higher energy costs," Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said.

Such early and angry sparring between the Bush and Kerry camps portends a long and nasty general election campaign. Kerry spokesman David Wade says the dependence on foreign oil will be a key element of it.

When Kerry declares that he would never send Americans to fight for oil in the Middle East, he says he's highlighting his belief that the nation's dependence on oil in an unstable region puts it in a precarious position.

Kerry contends that the Persian Gulf War in 1991 was largely about protecting America's access to oil. While he argues that the war in Iraq is misguided, he voted to give Bush authority to take America into combat. And he doesn't believe the conflict there involves oil.

But there is enough nuance in his argument so that other people see a connection.

"I have a son that's turning 17 next month," said Cynthia Adams of Novato, Calif. "Why should my son go to war for oil? Why aren't there wind farms on every hilltop in the state so we can get away from all this oil?"

During the primary season, voters who heard Kerry speak said the country's dependence on foreign oil was an issue that touched their hearts and their wallets.

Oil is "the basis of Bush's policy toward Iraq," insists Phil Palen, a retired real estate agent who describes himself as an independent and who heard Kerry speak recently in Buffalo. "I'd love to see a commitment of moving toward hydrogen-based fuel. It's not polluting, and you'll never run out of it."

But while some voters think the current combat in Iraq is in part an effort to defend U.S. access to oil, Phyllis Bennis, an oil expert and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. said, "You have to parse that against the facts.

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