WASHINGTON — Wooing a nation of increasingly angry motorists, President Barack Obama and his Republican rivals are all plunging into gas-pump politics, seeking the upper hand as energy becomes a driving issue in the election campaign.
The president is defending his energy agenda this week, traveling Wednesday to a solar panel plant in Nevada and later to oil and gas fields in New Mexico and the site of a future oil pipeline in Oklahoma. At the same time, GOP opponents from front-runner Mitt Romney on down are vigorously accusing him of stifling domestic production and betting on foolhardy alternative energy methods over traditional oil drilling.
With gasoline reaching $3.86 a gallon in the U.S. and apparently heading higher, the public is impatient for Obama — or someone in his place — to do something about it.
In truth, a president has little direct control over gas prices, which have risen more than 50 cents a gallon since January in response to a standoff over Iran's nuclear program that has threatened to disrupt Middle East oil supplies.
Well aware of Republicans' criticism, Obama's advisers argue that voters take a sophisticated view toward energy and think about it as a problem demanding long-term answers. They know that talk about future solutions may not satisfy people as they endure high prices, but they're betting that voters will side with the candidate they trust the most to deal with the issue — and they're determined that that will be Obama.
Polls show less certainty about it all. One survey this month by CBS News and The New York Times found that 54 percent of Americans felt the price of gasoline was something a president could do a lot about while 36 percent said it was beyond his control. And a recent Washington Post/ABC poll found 50 percent thought the Obama administration could reasonably do something to bring down gas prices, while 45 percent felt the recent rapid rise has been beyond White House control.
Obama has repeatedly argued that drilling for new oil alone will not solve the nation's energy woes or reduce gas prices. He accuses Republicans of claiming they can "wave a magic wand" to return to the days of cheap gas.
Obama carried three of the four states on this week's itinerary — Oklahoma is one of the safest Republican states in the nation — but all four elected Republican governors in 2010. Two of the governors, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Susana Martinez of New Mexico, have been floated as potential vice presidential choices this year. Obama was making his first visit to Oklahoma as president
He has been hurt by his administration's decision to pump millions into California solar company Solyndra before it collapsed. And he's been repeatedly criticized by Republican presidential candidates for blocking the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from western Canada to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.
The mere mention of Solyndra and Keystone generate instant reactions at Republican rallies.
Romney has blamed Obama for rising gasoline prices and urged the president to fire Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, calling them the "gas hike trio."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has adopted $2.50 gasoline as a central tenet of his struggling campaign, criticizing Obama for holding up the pipeline project and mocking him as "President Algae" for highlighting research into developing oil and gas from algae.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, regularly notes his grandfather's work as a coal miner. And he detoured his campaign to tour oil fields in North Dakota recently, labeling himself the only ardent supporter of oil drilling.
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