High prices may cost Bush his re-election

Gas: The spike hasn't hurt the president yet, but some experts think a sustained rise could tilt a tight race.

May 31, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PORTLAND, Ore. - Debbie and Greg Bowen would prefer to drive their spacious sport utility vehicle to the Oregon shore on weekends. But at a time of spiking gasoline prices, they've been opting for the smaller Acura, which costs less to fill up.

It's a squeeze. At a service station near Portland one recent evening, the family was packed in the car amid beach gear, with Debbie at the wheel, Greg beside her and their two children, ages 3 and 6, trying to sleep in the back. With little space and scant elbow room, Greg was trying not to drop any McDonald's fries on his wife's lap.

"We don't like this," Debbie said through an open window. Yet she's not sure who is to blame. Her husband, a Republican, said the gas prices are President Bush's fault. But Debbie, a Democrat, wonders.

"I just don't know how much control he has over this," she said. "But it is getting ridiculous."

High prices at the pump - the Bowens paid $2.30 a gallon - cut into pocketbooks of people everywhere. Some tend to blame whoever is president, angry that he can't or won't provide help when such basic activities as going to work, picking up kids at school or vacationing are growing more costly.

The danger that a perception will grow of a president sitting idly by while ordinary people struggle can be disturbing for the White House, given that presidents have few options to drive down prices in the short term.

Most recent presidents, from Richard M. Nixon through Bill Clinton, have faced political heat when gas prices were high. Now, at a time when Bush hardly needs more bad news, with his approval ratings hitting record lows over concerns about Iraq, the national average price for regular unleaded has topped $2 a gallon - a record before inflation is factored in.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bush's likely Democratic opponent, has sought to capitalize. He has argued that Bush could be helping - by pressuring oil countries to raise output or by reducing the amount of oil that flows into the national petroleum reserve. Kerry says instability in the Middle East, heightened by Bush's decision to invade Iraq, has forced up the price of oil, in turn pushing up prices at the pump.

But gas-price politics are, if nothing else, complex. Opinion polls, industry analysts and interviews with nearly four dozen voters in such swing states as Oregon, New Mexico and New Jersey suggest that gas prices have the potential to hurt Bush by Election Day - especially if they stay high enough to keep angering motorists.

Yet Bush's image and reputation appear to have suffered little. If prices fall back in the weeks or months before the election, Bush might dodge any real political harm.

In the nation's "oil patch," high gas prices don't necessarily spell trouble for the president - Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma and the desert of northwest New Mexico, a politically diverse region of a state that Al Gore won by just 366 votes in 2000 and one that could be pivotal again this time.

Crude-oil and natural-gas wells dot the dry, scrubby landscape. The serenity of a desert sunset can be broken by a convoy of noisy tankers returning from the wells. There, the global oil prices that are driving up gas prices and infuriating drivers have been a boost to the local economy, and just maybe to Bush.

People are smiling - people like Shannette Armenta, a 40-year-old waitress who inherited mineral rights last year to 80 oil and gas wells. She said she sympathizes with friends who are struggling to pay at the pump. At the same time, she has raked in big dollars by charging petroleum companies the sky-high market prices for her raw fuels.

"Dude," she said recently over beers at a tavern called the Wooden Nickel, a converted gas station, "I'm going on vacation."

Armenta and her husband, who works in the natural-gas fields, are spending her extra income this Memorial Day weekend to ride motorcycles to a four-day Harley-Davidson festival in Red River, N.M.

Armenta grew up on oil. She watched her family profit in booms and suffer in busts.

A registered Democrat who voted for Bush in 2000, Armenta has grown doubtful about his leadership as the violence in Iraq has persisted. But she is more likely to vote for Bush than she was a few months ago. With oil prices unpredictable, she said, she would trust a former oil man to try to manage the prices more than someone like Kerry, who has no experience in the energy business.

"This is what we live on here," Armenta said. "The ones who are sniveling about gas prices - they don't work in the oil fields. Let's take them out on the patch. Bush - he comes from an oil and gas background."

Debra Miller, the Wooden Nickel's bartender, said she is an independent who backed Bush in 2000. She said she remains undecided and thinks the surge in gas prices is "ridiculous." But she isn't blaming the president. Oil-producing countries and big oil firms, she said, are setting prices and making big bucks off the boom, while politicians have little to do with it.

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