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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Democrats Eager to Exploit Anger Over Gas Prices

April 21, 2006

Democrats Eager to Exploit Anger Over Gas Prices

WASHINGTON, April 20 — Democrats running for Congress are moving quickly to use the most recent surge in oil and gasoline prices to bash Republicans over energy policy, and more broadly, the direction of the country.

With oil prices hitting a high this week and prices at the pump topping $3 a gallon in many places, Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic Senate candidate in Minnesota, is making the issue the centerpiece of her campaign. Ms. Klobuchar says it “is one of the first things people bring up” at her campaign stops.

To varying degrees, Democrats around the country are following a similar script that touches on economic anxiety and populist resentment against oil companies.

“It's a metaphor for an economy that keeps biting people despite overall good numbers,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Mr. Schumer said Democratic candidates in 10 of the 34 Senate races this year had scheduled campaign events this week focusing on gasoline prices.

Officials at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which advises House candidates, said they sent a memorandum to candidates on Thursday offering guidance on using the issue to their advantage. The memorandum includes a “sample statement” that recommends telling voters, “Americans are tired of giving billion-dollar tax subsidies to energy companies and foreign countries while paying record prices at the pump.”

Increasing gasoline prices have put Republicans on the defensive at a time when they are counting on the economy to help offset the myriad other problems they face, starting with the Iraq war.

Republicans say they have spent years advocating policies that would reduce the reliance on imported oil, largely by promoting more domestic energy production, and they point to the energy bill that President Bush signed last August as a step in that direction. They said that the law encouraged conservation and greater use of ethanol in gasoline and that it would have done more for domestic oil supplies if Democrats had not fought so hard against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Mr. Bush tried to get ahead of the issue in January in his State of the Union address, saying that the nation is addicted to oil and urging steps to reduce reliance on energy imports.

The White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill have worked closely together for months on a campaign to highlight what they say is the strength of the economy, partly to offset what administration officials acknowledge are the negative psychological effects of high oil and gasoline prices on consumers. A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week found that 59 percent of Americans rated the economy “not good” or “poor,” despite solid economic growth and declining unemployment.

“The better we are at getting out the overall message that the economy is growing and the reasons behind it, the better we'll be able to deflect the silly political attacks from the Democrats,” said Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Democrats are tailoring campaign messages to pierce any economic good news by focusing on other aspects of the energy law, chiefly the subsidies worth nearly $15 billion for gas and oil companies and the bill's lack of a more muscular approach to conserve energy and reduce the dependence on foreign oil.

While Democrats are eagerly laying blame for the situation on the Republicans, they did little to advance energy measures in eight years under President Bill Clinton. Democrats remain split to some degree over how to proceed, but in general favor greater investment in “clean fuel” technologies, more incentives for driving fuel-efficient vehicles and stronger steps toward reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Those positions were included in a measure sponsored last year by more than 30 Democratic House members who opposed the Republican version of the energy bill. Even so, 75 Democrats in the House and 25 in the Senate voted with the Republicans to pass Mr. Bush's bill.

The recommendations of the memorandum to Democratic candidates include holding a campaign event at a gas station “where you call for a real commitment to bringing down gas prices and pledge that, as a member of Congress, you will fight for families in your district, not the oil and gas executives for which the Republican Congress has fought so hard.”

A survey by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research organization, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine suggests that the message could not be more timely. The survey said voters now believed that fears over energy independence rivaled the Iraq war as the leading foreign policy issue for the nation.

Daniel Yankelovich, chairman of Public Agenda, said the survey found that 90 percent of Americans viewed the lack of energy independence as a risk to security, that 88 percent said problems abroad were endangering supplies and increasing prices and that 85 percent believed that the federal government could do something if it tried.

In a similar survey six months earlier, Mr. Yankelovich said, just Iraq generated those levels of concern.

“If Democrats can make an explicit connection that Senator So-and-so could have done more but didn't, the message will resonate among voters,” he said. “This has really become a hot-button issue.”

If voter anger stays high, Democrats, as the minority party, stand to benefit most, said Amy Walter, a political analyst for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.

“Angry voters are motivated voters,” Ms. Walter said. “If the message in November is one of change, this is helping to make the case for Democrats.”

The spotlight on energy also provides environmentalists and liberals generally opportunities to make broader points. Amid a blaze of publicity, former Vice President Al Gore is about to release a documentary about global warming that urges, among other points, more aggressive steps to cut tailpipe emissions.

Even as high gasoline prices create an incentive to conserve — something environmentalists have sought to achieve through proposals like higher taxes on energy — the impact of high-priced gas hits hard in suburban and rural districts, where families are forced to drive greater distances for routine needs. Many of those regions are predominantly Republican.

In Minnesota, the leading Republican candidate for the open Senate seat, Representative Mark Kennedy, a three-term congressman, said he also heard voters' anger and frustration.

Reflecting the dangers facing his party over fuel costs, Mr. Kennedy said he told voters that the energy bill was not enough and pointed out that he is a co-sponsor, with Representative Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, of a bill that calls for taking back tax credits from energy companies and doubling investments in ethanol and other renewable fuels.

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