SAN DIEGO – In a high-octane election year fight, Democrat John Kerry (search) on Tuesday sought to lay the blame for soaring gas prices (search) on a resistant Republican administration while President Bush warned of higher gas taxes from "some in the other party in Washington."
The presumptive Democratic nominee complained that Bush has not taken steps to drive prices down, calling on the administration to stop pumping oil into the nation's emergency stockpile until Americans see cheaper prices. The administration has rejected that notion.
Campaigning in Wisconsin (search), Bush complained about the damaging effect on the economy of gas taxes as his re-election team unveiled a new ad — set to air in 18 states — that labeled Kerry's gas tax ideas "wacky."
"There are some in the other party in Washington who would like to raise gas taxes. I think it would be wrong," said the president, who also faulted Congress for failing to produce a comprehensive energy bill although his fellow Republicans control the House and Senate.
On the eve of a meeting in Vienna, Kerry also urged the administration to implore the representatives of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (search) to provide more oil.
"This administration has done nothing with OPEC to reduce the gas prices," Kerry said during a rally at the University of California, San Diego. The city has the nation's highest average gas prices at $2.12 a gallon.
Kerry also called on Bush to halt filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserves, which some Democrats contend drives up the cost of fuel for U.S. consumers in an already tight market with record prices. Gasoline prices reached a national average of $1.80 a gallon in the past two weeks, according to the private Lundberg Survey.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday the administration opposed using supplies from the reserve because independent analysts have concluded the impact on prices would be minor and that it is important to have necessary resources in case of a severe disruption in supplies.
With the summer driving season just a few weeks away — and the Nov. 2 election thereafter — rising gas prices are certain to be a critical political issue. Kerry has focused on the administration's actions and the connection of senior officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, to the oil industry.
Kerry also raised the specter of the uncertainty in the Middle East in light of the Iraq war, saying, "no young American in uniform ought to ever be held hostage to America's dependence on oil from the Middle East."
The Bush campaign has tried to keep the focus on Kerry's Senate record on gas taxes and his statements. The latest Bush-Cheney commercial, reminiscent of the bumbling Keystone Kops, argued that Kerry supported increases in gas taxes 11 times, including an additional 50-cent-per-gallon federal tax that would cost the average family $657 a year.
Kerry mentioned such an increase in a newspaper interview but has never offered legislation for such a tax and has since rejected the idea.
Of the other Kerry votes cited in the ad, several were procedural Senate votes while others were cast for former President Clinton's economic stimulus package that included a 4.3-cent per gallon gas tax increase that was meant to reduce the deficit.
Kerry responded to the ad by noting that the president's chief economist, Gregory Mankiw, promoted a 50-cent-per-gallon increase along with income tax cuts. Kerry also portrayed the White House as tied to the oil industry.
"Instead of revealing a new set of attack ads, I think Dick Cheney ought to reveal who the oil executives are that he met in secret with to set the oil policy of the United States," Kerry said.
Kerry said America's energy problems cannot be solved by drilling, but new technologies that conserve resources.
When he first took office, Bush proposed an energy package that called for drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, tax incentives and regulatory relief to various industries to spur production. Even if the Congress had agreed to drilling in Alaska, a recent Energy Department analysis has said the impact on oil prices would be less than $50 cents a barrel.
Current gasoline prices are at record levels in constant dollars, but not when inflation is taken into account. Using today's dollar, motorists paid the equivalent of $2.90 a gallon in March 1981, the government has said.
Separately, a group of 27 senators sent a letter to Bush urging him to press OPEC on releasing more oil.