Tired of waiting in long lines or simply running out of gas, angry drivers in the Southeast are lashing out at politicians, demanding that their leaders do more to get fuel flowing to the region.

"We have a gas crisis!" one frustrated motorist recently e-mailed to Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican running for governor. "Do you exist?'"'

Elected leaders, especially in Georgia and North Carolina, where gas supplies remain low three weeks after Hurricane Ike, are wrestling with judgment calls about how much government should do to respond.

Should they declare an emergency and restrict gas purchases, or let the markets take their course? Should they simply urge conservation or work the phones to try to persuade gasoline distributors to release more of their supplies? And will their actions create more havoc than help?

Whatever the result, somebody is going to be unhappy.

"The government should be more involved," Hamere Gosseye said Wednesday while pumping $4.29-per-gallon regular unleaded gasoline at a BP station in Atlanta. Gosseye, who ran out of gas earlier this week while hunting for fuel, complains the state of Georgia should have prepared people for the possible shortage as Ike was approaching.

Politicians have generally taken a cautious approach with the gas shortage, avoiding harsh remedies such as rations. While some people say that looks like inaction, leaders say it has helped quell panic that might make the situation worse.

But if voters don't agree with that approach, consequences could be steep for some of the officials in communities where the gas crisis has hit hardest. In North Carolina, McCrory's response has been magnified because he is the Republican nominee for governor, and the crisis hit with just a little more than a month to go before Election Day.

McCrory got criticism from Democrats for keeping his campaign schedule while cars lined up for gasoline _ then canceling events Monday in part to deal with the shortage.

McCrory defended his actions, which have included urging conservation and keeping in close contact with federal energy regulators about supplies _ but avoiding mandatory limits on gas purchases.

"My experience is don't overreact and don't underreact," McCrory said in an interview. "I feel that we have set the right tone."

McCrory's campaign pulled his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, into the fray by pointing out that she urged listeners on a Charlotte radio program a day before Ike hit the U.S. coast to "get our gas tanks as full as they'll let us do it." When pressed by the interviewer, her campaign said she clarified that she was only referring to people who were almost out of gas.

Officials say supplies are gradually improving in western North Carolina and Atlanta, where a key pipeline linking to the Gulf Coast has slowly replenished supplies as refineries come back online. Leaders also point out they did take steps to mitigate the shortage _ but many remedies were designed to prevent chaos.

When new supplies reached Charlotte's terminal late last week, some oil companies held back on some supplies to distributors for fear they would run out before the next shipment arrived. The office of North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley found more gas at terminals on the coast of the Carolinas and Virginia and agreed to help empty distributors get matched up with the supplies.

In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue made it easier for gas to be delivered by temporarily allowing suppliers without a state motor fuel license to sell gas.

Still, Perdue has taken heat from critics for not enforcing all aspects of Georgia's gas crisis plan, under which he could limit drivers to filling up their tanks every other day and set minimum and maximum limits.

"It would be nice if they had a limit," said Jenny Vanairsdale, 24, of Atlanta, as she filled up her Ford Focus hatchback. "Huge SUVs are getting full tanks and still driving to work every day."

Perdue's office worried that drastic restrictions would spark an even greater panic. "We've resisted doing anything that would make it worse," Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said.

Perdue, Easley and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear also issued orders so that their respective states' anti-gouging law could be enforced. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is facing re-election next month, sent out subpoenas to gas stations reportedly charging as much as $7.32 a gallon.

Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, where gasoline supplies have returned to normal, knew that his job had been cut out for him. But Bredesen, who like Perdue isn't facing re-election, said a priority was to keep drivers calm.

"I know people are mad, believe me. I've been around the lines and I've seen people, and we've certainly had plenty of calls at the office," Bredesen said last week. "But this is one where I'm just trying to be reasonable and not add to the problem by pounding my fist or pointing to some place that isn't the problem."

It's not clear if there will be lasting fallout for leaders who don't face election this November.

John Duffield, an energy policy expert at Georgia State University, believes consumers won't hold it against elected officials like Georgia's Perdue if they can't find an immediate solution.

"My impression is that they're not blaming him," Duffield said. "They understand that it's a much larger problem."


Associated Press reporters Dorie Turner and Greg Bluestein in Atlanta, Erik Schelzig of Nashville, Tenn., and Joe Biesk in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this story.