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By Stephanie Griffith
Some Americans are suspicious that recent steep declines in gasoline prices might be the result of political manipulation, since the savings at the gas pump come just weeks before critical midterm US elections.
Earlier this year, news of record oil profits led many US consumers to believe that energy companies had deliberately kept prices artificially high to improve their bottom line.
Now gas prices have fallen for several consecutive weeks, and recent polls show that consumers have a new suspicion — that the price break is meant to give a boost to a US president and Republican Congress who had fallen out of favor with voters.
A Gallup poll last week found that two in five respondents believe administration has deliberately manipulated gas prices to coincide with the fall campaign season.
White House spokesman Tony Snow addressed — and summarily dismissed — the speculation at a press briefing earlier this week.
"I have been amused by … the attempt by some people to say that the president has been rigging gas prices, which would give him the kind of magisterial clout unknown to any other human being," he told reporters.
"It also raises the question, if we’re dropping gas prices now, why on earth did we raise them to 3.50 dollars before?" he said.
Manipulated or not, many observers agree that the falling prices at the gas pump have lifted Bush’s sagging poll numbers.
"It pumps up presidential popularity," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.
And while many experts believe that the recent rebound enjoyed by Bush in the polls is a result of a new thrust on security, others say it is mostly about the newly discounted gas.
"I see a near-perfect correlation between Bush’s rise in the polls and the decline in gas prices," Sabato said.
"I think for most people it’s a lot more important than the global war on terror," he said. "People tank up twice a week. They feel it in their pocket book," he said.
It does seem clear US consumers are in a more upbeat mood as gas prices continue to decline. House Speaker Dennis Hastert crowed Tuesday after economic data showed consumer confidence rising.
"The economy continues to grow to record levels, and the American people are more convinced now as they feel relief at the pump and have more money in their pockets," he said.
And while the November 7 midterm elections portend a shakeup of the political establishment, American voters historically are less eager for political change if they can fill their cars’ gas tanks on the cheap.
Hastert said the improving economy gave voters reason to return Republican lawmakers to Congress, rather than defecting to opposition Democrats, whom many political observers believe are poised to take control of the House of Representatives.
"The American people can be assured that House Republicans will continue working to keep those prices low and American confidence high," Hastert said.
Pundits said that far from being the result of a Republican plot, the cheap gas can be explained by end of the summer driving season, a mild Atlantic hurricane season, healthy US energy stockpiles and lessening tensions over the Iranian nuclear crisis.
The average retail price of gasoline nationwide is now 2.38 dollars per gallon (3.8 liters), the lowest since March 2006. Oil prices, meanwhile, have fallen by more than 20 percent since July, when prices topped 78 dollars a barrel.
The Automobile Association of America (AAA), said a gallon of gas one year ago cost 2.80 dollars, while in early September 2005, average gas prices were 3.06 dollars per gallon.
US President George W. Bush seems to be a major beneficiary of the lighter public mood — whether or not cheaper gas is the cause.
In a Los Angeles Times poll last week, his approval rating rose from 41 percent in late June to 44 percent.
Conversely, some of Bush’s worst poll numbers came in May and June, hovering in the low 30s — at the very time when gas prices were peaking.
Analyst Tom Kloza of the Oil Price Information Service told the USA Today newspaper last week that gas prices will drop an additional 10 to 20 cents a gallon by Election Day — offering further cheer to Bush and fellow Republicans.