Playing gas pump politics

Mike Shteiwi pulled out the pump in disgust after buying just a few gallons of gas on a day when the price for a gallon of regular jumped a dime, to $3.09, in his southwest Ohio hometown.

“It’s killing everybody,” muttered Shteiwi, 54. “Whoever’s in office now, I’m not going to vote for none of them.”

With the country’s gas prices averaging $3 a gallon, congressional and gubernatorial candidates nationwide are trying to turn pain at the pump into smart politics.

In the Illinois governor’s race, Republican hopeful Judy Baar Topinka wants to suspend a portion of the state sales tax on gasoline. In Missouri, Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill is touring the state to promote alternative fuels. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, is making rising gas prices and energy independence part of her re-election campaign, featuring them in her first television ad.

In Washington state, Democratic congressional candidate Darcy Burner campaigned with “Gas Pump Man,” a character wearing a red, yellow and black gas pump costume and cape.

Candidates from both parties are paying attention to polls that show people attach the same level of concern to energy issues as they do to terrorism and immigration. About seven of every 10 Americans expect gas price increases to cause them or their families financial hardship over the next six months, and many expect it to be a serious hardship, according to an AP-Ipsos poll taken in early June.

In Alaska last week, one of the largest oil fields shut down for repairs that could take months, affecting the supply for an indefinite period and contributing to the $3-plus cost of a gallon of gas.

With gas prices expected to remain high even after the end of the peak summer driving season, candidates bet the issue will have staying power until the November elections.

Democrats try to pin the blame on Republicans who control the White House and Congress. Republicans counter that Democrats oppose increased oil exploration and don’t have a good plan to rein in gas prices.

Rep. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat challenging Republican Sen. Mike DeWine in Ohio, keeps reminding voters that the average two-car family is paying $1,563 more for gasoline this year than it did in 2000.

In Maryland, GOP Senate candidate Michael Steele held a news conference at a filling station in Annapolis to urge Bush and Congress to suspend the federal gasoline tax for four months.

Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political science professor, said Republicans could have a more difficult time defending themselves on the issue because President Bush’s popularity has sagged since the 2004 presidential campaign.

While gas prices aren’t likely to be the most important campaign issue, “what high gasoline prices do is make many Americans feel less good about the economy and their own economic situation,” Asher said. “That creates a problem for the Republican.”

Only a quarter of Americans approve of the way Bush is handling gasoline prices, according the AP-Ipsos poll.

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said the issue might cool a bit after summer, but it will be back on voters’ minds as the holiday season approaches and they take account of how much they have to spend.

“If they (prices) go down, maybe they go down to $2.80,” said Richard Curtain, director of consumer surveys at the University of Michigan. “Is that enough to change consumers’ views? I don’t think so.”

Ann Armstrong, whose family just bought a more fuel-efficient SUV to replace a 12-miles-per-gallon truck, said seeing gasoline at $3.09 a gallon was a shock. But she will continue to vote Republican.

“I don’t believe Congress or the president have direct price control on corporate decisions such as those of the oil companies,” said Armstrong, 58, of Enon, Ohio.

Democrat Pamela Anderson, 48, of New Lebanon, said she was sticking with her party, too.

“Will this affect my voting — gas prices? To a point, yes, it will,” Anderson said, as she put $10 of gas into her white Firebird. She said the issue makes her even more determined to vote for her party.

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