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GOP's gas price politics could prove fleeting


Republicans have in recent weeks waged an all-out blitz against President Barack Obama over the issue of gas prices, but the political benefit could prove fleeting, if and when fuel prices decline.

The steady rise in gas prices this spring provides Republicans with their most immediate example of the pocketbook fleecing suffered by voters, prompting the party to pounce. While some indicators point toward a tentative economic recovery -- which could be to the president’s political benefit -- the lost income associated with higher gas prices has led the GOP’s presidential contenders and leaders in Congress to complain that it’s Obama’s energy policies that have contributed to upped costs.

Jae C. Hong / AP

Gasoline pricesare now averaging more than $4 in six states plus Washington, D.C.

And from Republicans’ vantage point, Obama is on the ropes on the issue. They point to his energy tour last week, which included a stop at the southern portion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, as an example of the White House’s response to Republican pressure.

“The issue of gas prices is near the top now in terms of what we're hearing from people,” said Republican Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner. “President Obama wouldn't be taking credit for a pipeline he has nothing to do with unless he weren't feeling pressure that he's not doing enough.”

Republicans are also encouraged by recent poll numbers, which make them think gas prices are a winning issue.

A healthy majority of Americans -- 57 percent in a Gallup Poll this week -- support the construction of the Keystone Pipeline, and four in 10 Americans called the energy situation in the U.S. is “very serious” right now.

But, for Republicans, living by the price of gas, might risk dying by the price of gas.

“We'll see how short-lived people's memories are,” said Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford, a Republican whose district is near the site in Cushing, Okla., that the president visited Thursday.

Lankford said he expected a drop in fuel prices this fall associated with the end of the summer driving season. But he also expressed concern that voters might grow accustomed to the higher gas prices, thereby allowing Obama to boast of the decline in prices before the election.

“I’m afraid we're going to set the same thing with gas prices where if we're down to $3.30 (a gallon), they're saying, hey, that's a good thing,” he said. “It does have the possibility of setting a new low and lulling people into that.”

There are other indications as to why Republicans might be taking a risk by betting the house on gas prices.

While voters call prices a serious issue, it ranks fourth -- at 8 percent -- among the most important priority among voters, according to the March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. By comparison, 18 percent of Americans called energy and the cost of gas their top issue -- making it second most important -- in August of 2008, when prices were similarly high, and then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was voicing the slogan, “Drill, baby, drill!”

The administration hasn’t shown a willingness to sit back and concede the issue, either.

"Every time prices start to go up -- especially during an election year -- politicians, they start dusting off their 3-point plan for $2.00 gas," Obama said Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, mocking his Republican opponents. "They head down to the gas station and they make sure a few cameras are following them, and then they tell you how we’re going to have cheap gas forever if you just vote for them.  And it has been the same script for 30 years -- the same thing.  It has been like a bad re-run."

And liberal groups have come to the president’s defense, too.

“I think that the thing Americans understand is that giving oil companies everything they want is not going to solve our energy policies,” said Navin Nayak, the senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters.

Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama super PAC, also went on offense by attacking Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney for raising fees on gas during his time as governor of Massachusetts.

For his part, Romney has called for the firing of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar -- whom he dubbed the “gas hike trio.”

But in an effort to broaden his message beyond the exact price of gas (unlike rival Newt Gingrich, who’s premised his campaign on the promise of lowering gas prices to $2.50 a gallon if elected), Romney said he couldn’t promise to bring prices down.

“I'm not predicting they're going to go down to $2 per gallon. I know there are some who think that's possible. Anything's possible in this world, but I think gasoline prices are going to be high,” he said Friday on New Orleans’ WWL radio. “However, they don't have to be as high as we're seeing under this president, if we develop our own energy resources and provide them to the refiners ... in this nation.”

Romney’s comment belies the point, though, that gas prices are unlikely to go back to the lows they were at when Obama took office. The financial crisis and recession had driven prices to a relative low, though Republicans still figure to use that price against Obama despite the economic recovery.

“I think we just maintain the message,” Lankford said. “The easiest way to say it is that it was $1.87 when he took office.”