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Kerry, Bush seize upon record-high gas prices as campaign issue

James Kuhnhenn and Ken Moritsugu / Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT)

SAN DIEGO - With gasoline prices rising, Sen. John Kerry and the Bush campaign blamed each other Tuesday for backing policies that hurt motorists and the economy.

Kerry, noting that gasoline prices have increased by 11.5 percent during the Bush administration, called on President Bush to quit storing oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and divert it into U.S. markets. He also called for Bush to pressure the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase production, and said he would promote U.S. oil production in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, but - unlike the president - not in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

The Bush camp replied with a new TV ad accusing Kerry of having "wacky ideas" because he supported gas-tax increases in the past to promote energy conservation and cut the federal deficit. Bush, in Wisconsin, said "some in the other party" wanted to raise gas taxes, but that he opposed it because it would hurt the economy. Kerry isn't proposing to raise gasoline taxes.

Gasoline prices average about $1.80 a gallon nationwide and are more than $2 a gallon in California. While these are record levels nominally, they aren't when adjusted for inflation; in today's dollars, gasoline cost about $2.80 per gallon in 1980.

High gasoline prices can be a powerful political issue. Kerry aides say today's high prices could be comparable in impact to those in 1980, which contributed to President Carter's defeat for re-election.

In San Diego on Tuesday, Kerry diverted his nine-vehicle motorcade to a Shell gas station - backing up traffic on a major boulevard - to help ensure that TV cameras recorded his message. Prices at the station ranged from $2.15 a gallon for regular to $2.37 for premium.

"No young American in uniform ought to ever be held hostage to America's dependence on oil from the Middle East," Kerry later told a student crowd at the University of California, San Diego.

"If the gas prices keep rising at the rate they're going now, Dick Cheney and George Bush are going to have to car-pool to work," Kerry said to wild applause. "Those aren't Exxon prices. Those are Halliburton prices."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush wouldn't use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase the supply of oil and reduce prices. "It's important that we have the necessary resources in the event of a severe disruption of supply," he said.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told a Senate hearing last week that the impact of diverting 150,000 barrels of oil a day into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve "is fairly negligible" in a global market of 86 million barrels a day. He said filling the reserve with another 55 million barrels to reach its capacity of 700 million is "a critical national security objective."

Oil market analysts said that if Kerry's proposals were followed, they would bring down gasoline prices by only a few cents per gallon. Diverting oil from the reserve would shave off about 3 cents per gallon, predicted Mark Baxter, the director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Oil prices did drop in 2000 when President Clinton ordered oil released from the strategic reserve into the marketplace, but Kerry is proposing only to halt deposits into the reserve, not tap what's in it.

The Bush camp cited a comment from Kerry in 2000 in which he minimized the impact that tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would have on fuel prices.

"John Kerry was actually against meddling with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve before he was for it," Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said. "In 2000, Kerry said the Strategic Petroleum Reserve wouldn't have an impact on prices, and today he is using the reserve as a political football."

Kerry spokesman David Wade said the issue Kerry was addressing in 2000 was the cost of home heating oil, not gasoline prices, and that increases in assistance for low-income people resolved that problem.

Analysts say OPEC holds the key to cutting gasoline prices, and there's little reason to think Kerry would be any more successful at persuading Saudi Arabia to increase production than the Bush administration has been.

"They have not looked too kindly on past efforts to pressure them," said Michael Lynch, an independent energy consultant in Amherst, Mass. "This is more posturing than anything."


(Kuhnhenn reported from San Diego with Kerry; Moritsugu reported from Washington.)


© 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.







Wayne Stayskal / KRT Campus