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Newt Gingrich has seized on a potent pocketbook issue to try to re-energize his campaign: If he is elected president, he says gasoline prices could fall as low as $2 a gallon.
Down in the polls and increasingly overlooked in the Republican nominating contest, Gingrich's campaign is betting it can claw its way back into the conversation with a focus on rising gasoline prices, an issue that is viewed as an increasing liability for the White House.
"There's no reason we can't get gasoline down to $2 and $2.50 a gallon," Gingrich said Monday in Tulsa. "It could easily get down to $2.... Why do we make this assumption all of a sudden, 'Oh gee, that's the distant past?'"
When Gingrich took the stage here Monday night, his podium featured a new sign that said, "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less."
Nationally, gasoline prices average $3.57 a gallon for regular unleaded, up from $3.17 a year ago, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report. AAA puts the record for the nationwide average price of regular unleaded at $4.11 in July 2008.
U.S. crude oil production has been rising, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but industry analysts don't expect the higher numbers to translate into lower gasoline or diesel prices anytime soon. So much gasoline and diesel is exported from the Gulf Coast that U.S. customers compete with customers in Mexico and the rest of Latin America--and have to pay as much as these foreign users. The result is that all this new U.S. oil won't significantly lower prices at U.S. gas stations, unless global gasoline prices drop.
While all GOP candidates are expected to pile on the White House if gasoline prices shoot up, Gingrich appears to be talking about that possibility more than his rivals. Mitt Romney made no mention of gasoline prices as he campaigned Tuesday in Michigan. And Rick Santorum briefly addressed pump prices Monday, warning voters in Michigan that prices could approach more than $5 a gallon.
Gingrich plans to focus heavily on oil and gas at Wednesday's GOP presidential debate in Phoenix, explaining how he believes he can handle the issue better than his rivals, campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond said.
"This is actually an issue people care about," Hammond said. "That's a key component to someone who's going to take on the White House in the fall."
Romney's campaign disputed that it doesn't focus on the issue. "Gov. Romney is constantly talking about his comprehensive plan for jobs and economic growth," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. "This plan includes numerous proposals to create jobs and increase the supply of affordable, reliable, domestically produced energy."
Santorum's spokesman didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Gingrich often says that increased domestic energy production will lead to lower gas prices. He, along with Santorum, frequently tout the possibilities of extracting oil from North Dakota's shale fields. They also argue the administration passed up new jobs when it delayed construction of an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.
The White House has rejected the idea that domestic oil production has declined during the Obama administration, and has said it is looking for avenues to produce more oil.
What is less clear is how Gingrich will take on his Republican rivals, who no longer mention him on the stump. His campaign isn't contesting Arizona and has little expectations for Michigan, which vote next Tuesday. Instead, Gingrich is focusing on Washington state, which votes March 3, and some of the 10 states that hold contests on March 6, or Super Tuesday, including his home state of Georgia.
An Insider Advantage poll of that state released Tuesday showed a near three-way tie between Gingrich, Santorum and Romney.
But Gingrich's campaign appears to think it can get a second look after Wednesday's debate if it can rise above the fray and paint the Obama administration as out of touch when it comes to energy. While even some of the voters showing up at Gingrich's events here said they are considering voting for Santorum, they said the former speaker is the only candidate who can rattle off policy proposals in succinct and sometimes comical fashion.
Gaylene Stupic, a 49-year-old from Edmond, Okla., said she likes Santorum's social conservatism, but is still considering Gingrich. "I don't know if he has as solid of a plan going in as Newt Gingrich," she said of Gingrich, who she said has "fleshed out his ideas."
For instance, Gingrich on the stump frequently mocks the White House for pushing Americans to buy electric cars, noting "you cannot put a gun rack in a Volt," an electric car made by Chevy.
On Tuesday, a YouTube video surfaced in which a man challenged that contention, showing it was possible to fit a homemade gun rack inside the vehicle.
"He doesn't get the point," Hammond said of the video. "You can't go hunting in that car. Once you put the deer in the car you can't move forward."