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Pain at pumps may be felt at polls

Anger over gas prices is gaining traction in many midterm races around the nation as Democrats attack Republicans for being too close to oil companies.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

One of the soaring bridges to the beach here is named for longtime Republican congressman E. Clay Shaw Jr., and at its foot is a gas station where drivers on Wednesday were filling up, wincing at the tally and wondering whom to blame.

Gasoline prices have reached $3 a gallon in the area, and for Shaw, a former mayor and a political institution here, the rising bipartisan disgruntlement at the pumps is a troubling sign. Here and in other swing districts across the country, the Democratic challenger is attacking the Republican incumbent for inaction -- or worse -- on gas prices and other energy woes.

"This is ridiculous," said Jackie Tarone, a retired homemaker and Bush voter who was filling up a Mercedes SL500. "The oil companies keep giving money to the politicians to keep them in there -- that's the way the system works. It's a shame."

Although she has voted for Shaw in the past, she said, she isn't sure about next time.

"I don't know which is the lesser of two evils anymore," she said.

Gaining traction
Anger over gas prices is gaining traction in many midterm races around the nation as Democrats attack Republicans for being too close to oil companies. With many in the GOP growing uneasy, President Bush this week called for price-fixing investigations. Political analysts say the rising prices could dovetail with growing public concern over the war in Iraq to give Democrats an opening in several key races.

In Virginia, one of two candidates in the Democratic primary for Senate, Harris Miller, accused Sen. George Allen (R) of siding with oil companies instead of backing legislation to protect consumers. "Looking to George Allen and George Bush to solve the gas crisis is like asking Bonnie and Clyde to solve the crime problem," Miller said.

Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams said in response that Democrats in the Senate had obstructed the passage of an energy bill in Congress for more than five years. He said Allen fought successfully for the bill's passage in 2005. "Had Harris Miller's friends not obstructed that bill for years, we would be a lot closer to energy independence and developing renewable sources of fuel," Wadhams said.

In the Maryland governor's race, incumbent Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) took fire from his Democratic challengers, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. They accused him of failing consumers by not putting his clout behind anti-gouging legislation that died during the recently concluded legislative session.

Ehrlich dismissed the attacks as "whining" and told reporters he is realistic about his limited ability to exert pressure on gas prices. He did say he is seeking permission to temporarily halt the use of cleaner-burning gas additives in the Washington suburbs and Baltimore area.

In Minnesota, Democratic Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar has stopped at stations to hear from consumers. In Pennsylvania's 6th District, where Democrat Lois Murphy is trying to unseat Rep. Jim Gerlach, Murphy has been swinging through the state all week for rallies at gas stations. In Arizona, Democratic Senate candidate Jim Pederson proposed a tax rebate to families funded by eliminating oil companies' tax breaks.

Gas gives Democrats leverage
George Gonzalez, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami, said the issue gives the Democrats leverage against Republican incumbents. "It certainly creates a bias against the Republicans," he said.

At the pumps, it was clear that incumbents had something to worry about.

Thomas Fortino said of Shaw: "I voted for him before, but now I want change -- but not just because of gas prices." The retired picture-framing-store owner was filling up in Fort Lauderdale.

Florida's 22nd District stretches across coastal communities from Fort Lauderdale through Boca Raton and Palm Beach. Shaw is being challenged by state Sen. Ron Klein, who is well financed and also focused now on energy issues.

This week, Klein proposed suspending Florida's sales tax on gasoline during August, noting that "there is a lot of frustration out there -- Congress has done nothing."

In criticizing Shaw for "generally voting with the Republican leadership to prop up the oil companies," he echoed other Democratic candidates whose national leaders have advised them to depict the problem, at least partly, as a product of Republican coziness with the oil industry. At least among motorists filling up here, suspicion regarding the oil companies was rife, with several citing the record profits recorded by Exxon Mobil Corp.

"I'm boycotting Exxon Mobil right now," said Deborah Shuart, a 53-year-old Republican who was putting $41.70 worth of gas into her car. The entrepreneur said her family of five is considering carpooling for the first time. "It's been tough."

Shaw said he anticipates being the target of some of the anger.

In a letter to constituents who ask about the issue, Shaw reminds them that he voted in favor of a measure to increase fuel-efficiency standards, which failed. In August, he sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, calling for scrutiny of potential profiteering and price gouging.

Noting that any "challenger will blame the incumbent" for the economic situation, he said he expects that gas prices, if they continue to rise, "will have some effect" on the election.

Several targets of anger
At the pumps here, the oil companies may have been the most commonly cited target of consumer ire, but not the only one.

Many said they blamed the government and car manufacturers for failing to develop alternative sources of energy -- particularly after the oil crisis in the 1970s.

"The government is definitely to blame for making oil our number one energy source," said Inna Shapovalov, 35, an immigration lawyer who was putting $35 into her Hyundai Santa Fe. "I wish we could all drive electric cars."

In a district that contains some of the most affluent portions of the state and large numbers of gas-guzzling luxury vehicles, none blamed motorists themselves for buying cars that use so much gas. National figures show that though the average vehicle mileage improved dramatically through much of the '80s, it has since dipped or held constant.

John Holzberg, 64, a Republican banker from Boca Raton, put gas into a Cadillac and cursed when the total of $43 came into view.

"I can't seem to figure out who's responsible," said Holzberg, who "doesn't like George Bush anymore." But he was sure it was making the electorate grumpy. "The economy is humming along, but nobody cares because everyone is focused -- like I am -- on Iraq and oil prices."

Staff writers Catharine Skipp in Miami, Matthew Mosk in Annapolis and Michael D. Shear in Richmond contributed to this report.