O.K., so suburban mom Beth Ball, 34, may not have been cast on Survivor, but the Villa Park, Ill., resident is feeling pretty close to the subsistence level these days. Ball owns a 1999 Ford Econoline van but has to keep it parked, she says, because gas prices are so outrageously high. A few days ago, she shelled out $90 to fill her tank. It's still full, as if the fuel were a nest egg. To commute to work, she borrows her husband's Pontiac Grand Am. For errands, she walks. "I don't drive anywhere as much as I used to," Ball says. "I can't afford it."
This was supposed to be the political dry season, the lowest-attention days of a campaign season with few or no cutting issues. But at some point last week, a jump ball was thrown. Maybe it was the steady rumble of outrage expressed by Beth Ball and millions of other Americans as gas prices inched over $2.30 a gal. in some cities. Maybe it was the 100th news story or angry call to a radio show. Whatever it was, the issue became the one for both presidential candidates to grab hold of. It has become clear to Al Gore and George W. Bush that the man who can gain the advantage on the summer's first hot political issue could set the pace for the rest of the campaign.
Since perception is more important than reality in this case, there's one thing neither Gore nor Bush is likely to admit anytime soon. In relative terms, gas prices are not that high. At this moment in the presidential race, however, the only thing that matters is that gas prices feel high to Americans, who have been guzzling freely for more than a decade now. And that's what makes this issue more potent than, say, Social Security, which had been the scheduled debating point for last week. Outrage is bubbling up, not from policy wonks and interest groups but directly from citizens who haven't been heard from in a while. Voters are increasingly dumbfounded by the sharp spike in prices at a time when there is no obvious cause, like a disruption in supply. With a summer of driving vacations on the way, they are likely to stay angry and keep pressing for answers. Restless votes like these, many of which happen to appear in critical Midwestern states where gas prices are highest, are the kind that turn elections.
As a result, Gore and Bush spent much of last week playing a furious round of the blame game. Gore's camp, for good reason, is worried that its man could become a fall guy in an economic downturn. Still, it figures that rising gas prices provide the Vice President with a two-pronged if somewhat risky shot at Bush: blast the oil companies for milking the consumer, then staple Bush to their greasy lapels, painting him as a shill of Big Oil whose tight money connections all but implicate him in gouging consumers. Said Gore during a speech: "It's time to put our feet on the brakes of what may well be Big Oil's price gouging."