Many Americans, like Laura Pienik of Texas, fear the high price of gasoline will cause them financial difficulty in coming months, but they don't necessarily blame President Bush.

"Gas prices make me nervous," said Pienik, a 20-year-old from Fort Hood, who has one child and a husband stationed in Iraq. "We're military and don't get paid a lot of money. We're basically at the mercy of whoever sets the gas prices."

More than half of Americans, 54 percent, expect the price of gasoline will cause a financial hardship for them or their families in the next six months, according to a poll conducted for The Associated Press this month by Ipsos-Public Affairs.

Those fears about gas prices may have slowed the return of economic confidence, but people in another recent poll were evenly divided on whether Bush or Democrat John Kerry (search) would do a better job of handling fuel prices.

The president hasn't been able to get a boost in public perception of the labor market, despite recent job creation. But on the other hand, Bush hasn't been penalized for high prices at the pumps.

Fewer than one-third of Americans in recent surveys blame the president for gas prices, which rose steadily through the spring to an average of more than $2 a gallon and only recently dropped slightly.

Recent economic news about job creation and higher productivity are lessening the damage of high gasoline prices, which analysts say could stay close to $2 a gallon for some time.

"If you have rising gas prices and a stagnant economy like Jimmy Carter had in the late 1970s, you'd be in trouble," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. "But with the improving economy, it cushions the impact. I certainly don't think they blame the president for it."

Democrats have tried to tie the high gas prices to Bush — criticizing the oil industry ties of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (search) and encouraging Bush to tap domestic oil reserves to lower the price.

Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, said such price shifts aren't blamed on the president "unless you can tie it directly to one of his policies."

Despite the high gas prices, David Mieras, a school principal from Muskegon, Mich., says he thinks the economy is heading in the right direction. "The return of the stock market has been positive, job reports have been strong in the last few quarters," he said.

Young adults, those with less education, those with lower incomes and those in rural areas were most likely to say they expect gas prices to cause them a hardship, the AP poll found. A majority, 62 percent, of Democrats and political independents said they expect gas prices will cause them difficulty.

As gas prices have dropped slightly, prices of other consumer goods are on the rise. Consumer prices, especially for products like dairy, rose in May at the fastest pace in three years.

A gallon of whole milk averaged $3.37 in May, up 14.7 percent since April. It was the largest increase in the price of milk over a one-month period since July 1946, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While the overall cost of gasoline is limited in a family's budget, "it's a very visible price," said economist Lynn Reaser of Banc of America Capital Management in St. Louis. "People see the price posted in large letters, it's discussed on the news," Reaser said.

"The high price of gasoline is affecting how people see the economy," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. "But the public may catch up with the generally good economic news by Election Day."