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Running on Empty - Peter Funt

With his poll numbers rising and the opposition flailing, little could cause President Obama's reelection bandwagon to run out of gas. Except, perhaps, gas.

When gas hit $4 a gallon last April, the president acknowledged the political impact by noting, "My poll numbers go up and down depending on the latest crisis, and right now, gas prices are weighing heavily on people."

An analysis, at the time, by Real Clear Politics showed that gas prices affect a president's standing even more than the unemployment rate. Now, unemployment is down, but gas prices are up: about 18 cents in the last two weeks.

Voters don't need the Bureau of Labor Statistics to tell them what they're paying at the pump. And they don't need an economist to explain that fuel prices affect virtually all consumer goods and services — from food to the family vacation.

For politicians, few issues translate so smoothly into campaign rhetoric and tie-in so well to other issues. Republicans already are linking pain at the pump to the Obama administration's opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada, and its backing of Solyndra, the failed solar energy company.

Rick Santorum recently blasted what he called a "radical agenda" by Democrats to deny Americans "affordable energy."

Newt Gingrich launched a petition drive on his web site demanding a return to $2.50 a gallon gas. All four Republican candidates advocate expanded offshore drilling and an immediate permit for the Keystone project.

In 2008, the price of gas was such a potent concern that candidates John McCain and Hillary Clinton proposed a federal "gas tax holiday."

Republicans chanted "drill baby, drill!"

In 2012, it's a perfect storm. Fears over Iran's nuclear program and a possible attack by Israel are driving up world oil prices. Meanwhile, several refineries in the U.S. have recently closed down.

And while Americans drive more in summer, the pollution-controlling formulations for summertime gasoline are more expensive than those used in winter.

Last summer, the Obama administration took the fairly rare step of releasing 30 million barrels from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to combat rising prices and address the Middle East oil disruptions, which, at the time, were linked to strife in Libya.

It was a limited and somewhat symbolic gesture, and not without political risk. A similar gambit this summer would surely provide fodder for the GOP nominee.

Unlike employment, which was in free fall when the president took office, gasoline prices were actually at rock bottom: under $1.90 a gallon.

Ironically, the drop was caused primarily by lower demand, due to the financial crisis. As things improved, oil prices rebounded. Yet, if the stump standard, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" is applied to gas prices, few voters will answer in the affirmative.

According to the latest Pew survey, the president's approval rating among independent voters has rebounded to 45 percent, after dipping to 37 percent just last month. This underscores the fact that the campaign remains as volatile as the economy.

Gasoline prices could be a meaningful election metric. Under $3.75 a gallon on Labor Day and President Obama's chances look solid. Over $4 and the president may be in trouble.

A chicken in every pot won't cut it, unless there's gas in every tank.

Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He is also the long-time host of “Candid Camera.” He can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.