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The Race to the White House

Surging Gas Prices Pump Up Political Debate

As OPEC weighs cutting output, both parties fault the other for failing to slow run-up. Kerry and Bush also trade charges on the topic.

March 31, 2004|Warren Vieth and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Record-high gasoline prices surged to the forefront of the presidential campaign Tuesday, as OPEC prepared to consider new production cuts and Republicans and Democrats faulted each other for failing to halt the spiral.

Democratic presidential contender John F. Kerry said President Bush should stop pumping oil into the government's emergency reserves, which could dampen prices, and should pressure OPEC to open its taps. His campaign sought to link high gas prices to the resumes of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both former oil industry executives.

Bush aides accused Kerry of advocating higher gas taxes in the past and criticized lawmakers for not passing the president's energy plan. Members of Congress called for more drastic moves to appease aggravated motorists.

A Low Note

Industry experts said it was unlikely any of their proposals would provide much relief. "In terms of the impact on the price of gasoline, it might be a penny a gallon," said energy economist James Williams. "The kinds of things you can really do something about are the kinds of things neither party has the stomach for."

Los Angeles motorists expressed similar doubts. "It's called election-year rhetoric," said John Coleman, 61, who shelled out $100 to fill the tanks of two Temple Community Hospital transport vans at a downtown Mobil station.

Rising prices, he said were "hurting business on one side. Then with the commuting we do, it's cutting into our wages on the other."

The debate could signal that energy policy would have a prominent role in this year's presidential election campaign. Kerry's attack on the president was part of a broader pitch for reducing dependence on foreign oil. Bush's rebuttal included a reminder that shortages of natural gas and electricity deserve attention too. On Capitol Hill, both sides promised to turn up the heat on energy legislation.

The initial spark was provided by Kerry, who blamed Bush for contributing to an 11.5% increase in gasoline prices since taking office in 2001. He said the price hikes were costing the average American family $289 a year.

The nationwide average price of regular unleaded gasoline set a record of $1.758 a gallon Monday, according to the U.S. Energy Department. The average pump price in California was $2.079, down 0.4 cent.

"I'll tell you what, If the gas prices keep rising at the rate they are now, Dick Cheney and George Bush are going to have to car pool to work," Kerry told supporters at UC San Diego after stopping by a Shell station, where a gallon of regular was going for $2.20. "Those aren't Exxon prices, those are Halliburton prices."

Kerry accused Bush of not fulfilling a 2000 campaign promise to pressure OPEC to boost production to keep prices in check. The price of crude has risen far above the cartel's target range of $22 to $28 a barrel in recent months, but OPEC ministers are expected to discuss further production cuts during a meeting today in Vienna.

Kerry also criticized the president for continuing to pump crude into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which reduces the amount of oil available for refining and puts upward pressure on prices.

Kerry said the price problem was being exacerbated by a patchwork system of more than 300 local and state fuel regulations that limited the ability to move gasoline from areas where it was plentiful to those where it was in short supply. He promised to simplify the system if elected president.

The Bush camp unveiled a television ad accusing Kerry of supporting a 50-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax. Titled "Wacky," the ad features fast-motion, black-and-white action sequences resembling scenes from a Charlie Chaplin comedy.

"Some people have wacky ideas, like taxing gasoline more so people drive less," a narrator says, as the ad shows cars driving in circles and a man pushing his antique auto up a hill.

"Maybe John Kerry just doesn't understand what his ideas mean to the rest of us," the ad says.

Bush underscored the message during an appearance in Appleton, Wis., where he defended his efforts to boost the U.S. economy. "We don't need to be raising the federal gas tax," the president said.

"I think it would be wrong. I think it would be damaging to the economy."

Two Boston newspapers quoted Kerry in 1994 as verbally supporting a 50-cent increase in the gas tax as part of a larger deficit-reduction package. However, the Kerry campaign says the senator never voted for a 50-cent gas tax hike, nor did he ever sponsor legislation to enact one.

Bush has so far resisted calls to suspend oil deposits in the government's strategic reserve, saying the reserve should be used only to address supply issues, not pricing. On Tuesday, the president called on key lawmakers to resolve their differences over his comprehensive energy plan. He said its passage was needed to reduce dependence on foreign oil, to bolster domestic reserves of natural gas, modernize the nation's electrical grid and encourage energy conservation.

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