Pump Up The Volume

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O.K., so suburban mom Beth Ball, 34, may not have been cast on Survivor, but the Villa Park, Ill., resident is feeling pretty close to the subsistence level these days. Ball owns a 1999 Ford Econoline van but has to keep it parked, she says, because gas prices are so outrageously high. A few days ago, she shelled out $90 to fill her tank. It's still full, as if the fuel were a nest egg. To commute to work, she borrows her husband's Pontiac Grand Am. For errands, she walks. "I don't drive anywhere as much as I used to," Ball says. "I can't afford it."

This was supposed to be the political dry season, the lowest-attention days of a campaign season with few or no cutting issues. But at some point last week, a jump ball was thrown. Maybe it was the steady rumble of outrage expressed by Beth Ball and millions of other Americans as gas prices inched over $2.30 a gal. in some cities. Maybe it was the 100th news story or angry call to a radio show. Whatever it was, the issue became the one for both presidential candidates to grab hold of. It has become clear to Al Gore and George W. Bush that the man who can gain the advantage on the summer's first hot political issue could set the pace for the rest of the campaign.

Since perception is more important than reality in this case, there's one thing neither Gore nor Bush is likely to admit anytime soon. In relative terms, gas prices are not that high. At this moment in the presidential race, however, the only thing that matters is that gas prices feel high to Americans, who have been guzzling freely for more than a decade now. And that's what makes this issue more potent than, say, Social Security, which had been the scheduled debating point for last week. Outrage is bubbling up, not from policy wonks and interest groups but directly from citizens who haven't been heard from in a while. Voters are increasingly dumbfounded by the sharp spike in prices at a time when there is no obvious cause, like a disruption in supply. With a summer of driving vacations on the way, they are likely to stay angry and keep pressing for answers. Restless votes like these, many of which happen to appear in critical Midwestern states where gas prices are highest, are the kind that turn elections.

As a result, Gore and Bush spent much of last week playing a furious round of the blame game. Gore's camp, for good reason, is worried that its man could become a fall guy in an economic downturn. Still, it figures that rising gas prices provide the Vice President with a two-pronged if somewhat risky shot at Bush: blast the oil companies for milking the consumer, then staple Bush to their greasy lapels, painting him as a shill of Big Oil whose tight money connections all but implicate him in gouging consumers. Said Gore during a speech: "It's time to put our feet on the brakes of what may well be Big Oil's price gouging."

Bush's campaign was swift in firing back, blaming the rise in prices on the Administration's domestic energy policy as well as Gore's crusade for stringent clean-air fuel, which is at the center of fast-rising fuel prices in the Midwest. At a well-scripted press conference last week, when asked about the increases and the suggestion that Bush's oil ties made him a culprit, the Governor replied, "There seems to be an effort out of Washington to blame me for rising energy prices. I am amazed that they're trying to shift the blame away from people that are holding the office." Then Bush took out a copy of a book by Gore, its pages clearly earmarked for handy referral. "I don't know if anybody's read Earth in the Balance," Bush said, and he slid on his glasses and read aloud a passage in which Gore said that while the public opposed raising taxes on fossil fuels, raising them was the right policy. "In other words," Bush said, "he writes in a book that he thinks we ought to have higher fuel prices...Now that he's running for President, he seems to be changing his tune."

Everyone is under pressure. Perhaps prodded by Washington, OPEC, which had been hesitant about putting new crude on the market, last week announced it would try to drive down U.S. prices by goosing up production. Some state pols, enjoying budget surpluses, have vowed to give drivers a break by suspending the gas sales tax for a couple of months. It's not quite altruism. "If gas prices were to stay at today's rates for the next year, Indiana could lose 17,000 jobs," says Governor Frank O'Bannon.

The Federal Trade Commission, pressed by the likes of O'Bannon, is set to subpoena heads of the major U.S. oil companies to grill them about possible antitrust violations and price gouging. If consumers are impressed by this, energy experts are not. They say that while a probe might make for good TV, the exercise isn't likely to turn up much. Ken Medlock, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, puts it this way: "I think it was a good step politically to get the FTC involved, but I don't really think it's a question of price gouging."

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