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By November, it could be the gas pump that defines the election
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000
Gasoline went up another couple of pennies per gallon at the station on the corner the other day. It cost $32 to fill up the Explorer.
Should we take it out on Al Gore and turn to George W. Bush for help?
Yet the economy remains robust, and it seems every small store and fast food joint in Tampa Bay is begging for workers.
Should we give the vice president credit and effectively grant the Clinton administration a third term?
Those are the sorts of issues George W. Bush bounced around last week on a leisurely day of campaigning and fundraising in the friendly confines of Florida.
The pressure and the angst of the primary season has passed out of the Bush camp like air from a balloon. The nomination is nailed down and John McCain is back in the Senate. It's too late to worry about spending more than $60-million and too early to start picking running mates.
"I haven't really started my list yet," Bush said.
He appeared rested, relaxed and finally rid of the flu and colds that had swept through the campaign plane like the plague. The smirks that polls show are turning off voters were missing, and so were the less gracious remarks about McCain. At a short news conference in Orlando and in a later interview with several Florida reporters, Bush appeared more at ease than he has in weeks.
In Orlando, where tourism is king, the price of gasoline is of particular concern. High gas prices mean fewer families piling into the wagon to drive down from Indiana to spend a week at Disney World and the other theme parks.
Bush offered his usual suggestions.
He would pressure the country's friends, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to increase oil production -- which is exactly what Gore campaign officials say the Clinton administration is doing. He would increase domestic exploration for oil in places such as Alaska -- but extend the moratorium on drilling in the waters off Florida's coast. He would encourage the use of alternatives such as the fuel additive ethanol.
"There is no national energy policy in Washington," Bush told reporters.
If gas prices don't stop climbing this summer, drivers are going to blame somebody somewhere. That could well be Gore. Bush pondered that proposition for a moment, then deflected the question by saying he didn't know how it would play out.
"I'm not interested in political consequences," he said. "I'm interested in economic consequences."
On a day when the Dow rose more than 250 points, Bush was a bit more forthcoming about the impact of a booming economy on the race. Conventional wisdom says if the economy remains strong, Gore will get the credit and the votes.
"Economic growth is fine. That's important," Bush acknowledged as he argued there are other concerns the nation also should address. "But there are people wondering, "What is America about?"'
People also are wondering what this election is about.
It's not about reform, no matter how many times Bush calls himself "a reformer with results" and Gore growls he will fight for us.
The nation won't turn its attention to the presidential campaigns until the fall, no matter how many e-mails and faxes Bush and Gore send out. By then gas prices and the economy could loom larger than issue papers on education and the military. They would boil down the election to its most basic question.
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