Top on the list of campaign topics heading into a heated midterm election year are soaring gas prices and America's dependence on foreign oil. As the price per barrel of oil continues to rise and Americans begin to feel the pinch at the pump, candidates are adopting energy policies as a way to reach voters.
July, the cost per barrel topped $78 and stayed near record highs,
fueled by intensifying violence in the Middle East that raised
concerns of supply disruptions, despite attempts by the Organization
of Petroleum Exporting Countries to calm fears of a supply cutoff.
Republicans and Democrats alike are attempting to use energy policy to appeal to voters and to discredit their opponents.
In a July 13 Gallup poll, 9 percent of Americans listed fuel and oil prices as the top problem facing the country. Twenty-five percent named the war in Iraq and 10 percent immigration. When asked to rank the top economic problem, "fuel and oil prices" was the top answer, followed by "economy in general" and "unemployment/jobs."
Many analysts are predicting that Republicans, who now control the House and Senate, will end up bearing the brunt of concerns over high gas prices in the upcoming elections.
"If gas prices get higher between now and the election or even stay at 3 bucks a gallon, that's going to be a problem for Republicans," said political scientist Gary Jacobson of the University of California at San Diego in an interview with USA Today in May. "It takes the edge off the good economy, which would be their main selling point at this juncture."
In many swing districts across the United States, Democratic challengers are attacking Republican incumbents for energy problems, some even accusing Republicans of being too close to oil companies and allowing them to make record profits while middle-class families suffer.
"I think it's a terrible issue for the Republicans going into the campaign of 2006," said syndicated columnist Mark Shields on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in April during a discussion of the influence of gas prices on political parties.
Democrats have jumped to criticize Republican energy policy by staging campaign events at gas stations.
"We have followed the Cheney energy policy into this ditch. It's time for the president to call the vice president in and tell him, 'Heck of a job, Cheney. You could have done a lot better,'" said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois in April.
Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee aired a TV ad showing him pumping gas while declaring oil profits excessive.
Democratic policy ideas include temporary suspensions of the federal gas tax, investigations of oil company profits and more investment in alternative energy sources.
For their part, Senate Republicans have renewed calls to drill in the coastal region of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to ease dependence on foreign oil and vowing to prevent price gouging by major oil companies that posted record profits.
President Bush weighed in on the issue by proposing to raise mileage standards for passenger cars.
In June, California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered a state investigator to look into whether oil companies were engaging in price gouging, noting the "unusual" spike in gasoline prices in the spring compared to other regions of the country.
Facing a tough re-election campaign, Schwarzenegger assured citizens at a press conference that whatever the reasons for the spike in gas prices, "we will get to the bottom of it."
Lowering or suspending gas taxes for consumers is an idea also espoused by Republicans on the campaign trail. Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who is running for U.S. Senate, has called on President Bush to suspend the federal gas tax of 18 cents per gallon for 120 days.
In a similar move, West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin prevented an annual increase in his state's gas tax after the 2005 hurricanes, in an effort to appeal to voters in the upcoming elections.
Some political figures also are attempting to practice what they preach. Governors from Iowa, Florida, Minnesota and New Mexico recently switched to driving hybrid or ethanol-fueled vehicles.
Concerns over high energy costs and other economic problems surfaced in previous elections even after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In July 2002, financial issues such as the economy and gasoline prices had overtaken terrorism and national security as the leading concerns voters wanted addressed in the fall elections.