Politics of Gasoline Prices Heat Up ; Wednesday's OPEC Decision to Cut Production Comes as Bush and Kerry Trade Barbs over Prices and Energy Policy

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The combination of historically high gasoline prices and oil production cutbacks, announced Wednesday by OPEC, has created a high- octane mix for a presidential campaign with issues to burn.

One of Americans' most basic pocketbook concerns, the price consumers pay at the gas pump, is suddenly at the forefront of national politics - and raising the question of what policy makers can do about it.

The concerns, coming with summer driving season just around the corner, prompted both President Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, to go into attack mode on the issue Tuesday. Then, Wednesday, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed to cut production by 4 percent, raising concerns of a further rise in energy prices.

Jimmy Carter hasn't necessarily resurfaced in his cardigan sweater, but the era of gas being cheaper than bottled water seems to have ended with a jolt. Amid concern about rising clout for the OPEC cartel and tighter supplies looking forward, pressure could build on both President Bush and Senator Kerry to define, and defend, their energy policies. Bush, in particular, could be vulnerable.

"Presidents usually face trouble when prices go up, and gas prices in particular," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "It doesn't matter what the actual causal link is, presidents usually get blamed."

At stake in the presidential race are two sharply contrasting strategies on energy policy. President Bush is urging opening new sources of production, including protected offshore sites and the Alaskan wilderness. John Kerry's signature environmental issue in the Senate has been energy conservation, especially raising the standards for fuel efficiency for light trucks and sport-utility vehicles.

Recent gas prices have hit levels not seen since the Department of Energy began keeping tracking at US pumps at the beginning of the 1990s.

Experts say it is not clear what the actual impact will be at the pumps of OPEC's decision to lower oil targets to 23.5 million barrels a day.

Specter of $40 per barrel

Some analysts said it could push prices above the psychologically important barrier of $40 per barrel. But Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research Inc., suspects the price of crude oil will drop to about $25 a barrel by the end of the second quarter in the US. He says world production exceeds demand by 2 million to 3 million barrels per day.

The OPEC cut amounts to about 1 million b.p.d., starting Thursday.

Several factors are key to the price, including rising demand in places such as China, plus non-OPEC supplies - such as rising production Russia and Iraq.

Also, quotas are not often respected by the OPEC's 11 members, who together account for about a third of the world's oil production. But for a president who once called on President Clinton to "jawbone" OPEC into increasing production, the move is a symbolic blow.

At a rally in San Diego - where gasoline prices hit $2.13 this week - John Kerry blasted the White House for failing the nation at the gas pump and just letting the problem "fester." He pledged to move the nation toward energy independence by adding 500,000 new jobs in renewable- energy fields in his first term in office.

"For three years, George Bush and Dick Cheney have bent over backwards to help their big contributors in the oil industry. …