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Gas Prices Prime Blame Game

Rarely do Democratic and Republican House leaders agree. But when they sent their Members home for the July Fourth recess last week, they prepared their rank and file to talk to constituents about one issue: skyrocketing gas prices and who’s to blame.

At the same time, the party campaign committees prepared to turn up the heat on vulnerable incumbents as they returned home by running attack ads that focused on pain at the pump.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is set to run 60-second radio ads this week targeting 13 GOP lawmakers. The spots feature a President Bush impersonator leaving a telephone message for the Member being targeted. The faux Bush uses a different nickname for each lawmaker.

“Pattie … ‘W’ here,” the Bush impersonator says in the spot that will air in Rep. Patrick McHenry’s (R-N.C.) district. “Wanted to thank you for continuing to support the Big Oil energy agenda. ’Preciate you voting to keep giving billions in tax breaks to the big oil companies. Sure, gasoline is over four bucks a gallon and the oil companies are making record profits, but what’s good for Big Oil is good for America, right? I guess that’s why they call us the Grand Oil Party. Heh, heh, heh. Seriously, Patrick, I know I can always count on you.”

The cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee is largely relying on earned media events, talk-radio hits and press releases to broadcast the party’s message that the Democratic-controlled Congress is standing in the way of proposals to produce more domestic energy.

Republicans began their message push before recess, holding what they called national radio day, when 58 Members did more than 100 radio interviews that aired across the county.

The GOP Conference also distributed its initial recess kit to Members two weeks ago to give lawmakers more time to schedule events back home. That packet focused entirely on energy and gas prices, while a supplemental packet given out just before Members left town addressed other issues such as federal wiretapping legislation, the war supplemental and taxes.

“We must make use of the next ten days — we cannot cede this district work period to a majority that has failed to do anything that would lower prices at the pump,” GOP Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) wrote to Members.

“Agendas are good and positive poll numbers are encouraging, but as we have learned, there’s no substitute for building grassroots support the old-fashioned way: by pounding the pavement, talking up our solutions in town halls, doing drive-time radio, writing op-eds.”

Among the suggested earned media for Members are staged events at local grocery stores, soup kitchens, food banks and truck stops to highlight the impact of high gas prices.

“Identify a friendly grocery store, preferably a locally owned one,” read the logistics instructions to Members on setting up a grocery store event. “The cost of food has risen as skyrocketing fuel costs have made shipping the foods we eat more expensive. … Invite a local family to join you to discuss how much harder it is to buy the food they need.”

In the final push to get out of town, Democrats’ plan to make a bold statement on energy fizzled as they passed only one of four energy measures they had lined up.

Still, the Democratic recess kit included a 34-page section on energy independence and gas prices including fact sheets on bills to require companies to act on public land leases, to reduce mass-transit fares and to investigate price-gouging. The mass-transit measure was the only one to pass the House before lawmakers left town.

Democratic talking points focused on President Bush’s role in the energy predicament, charging that he has allowed oil companies to write energy policy and that Republicans’ only solution to the problem is more drilling.

The packet includes tables showing average gas prices in each state and the percentage increase since the beginning of 2001, when President Bush took office.

The Democratic recess kit also included packets on rebuilding the economy — with focused talking points on the legislation addressing the home mortgage crisis and unemployment benefits — and on the new GI bill, which was passed as part of the war funding supplemental.

“Years of inaction and incompetence by the Bush administration and their allies in Congress on the tough challenges facing Americans — and a costly war without an end — have resulted in this economic crisis for middle-income families,” according to the Democratic message portion of the packet on rebuilding the economy.

Members were also given pages and pages of talking points on touting the accomplishments of the Democratic-controlled Congress.

As Democrats scrambled to put bills on the floor to show they are doing something about gas prices, Republican leaders continued their drumbeat for more drilling and took credit for opposing “sham” Democratic energy bills.

Democrats, not surprisingly, argued that many Republicans had taken bad votes that would tar them as supporters of oil price-gouging back home.

But Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) likened the Democratic proposals to Band-Aids, and said the American people “have figured out that part of the solution is to go after our own resources.”

Blunt also chided Democrats for adjourning the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations markup rather than vote on Republican oil-drilling proposals, saying it shows they are afraid of the issue.

“Nobody is buying their solutions,” he said.

Other than McHenry, the DCCC radio ads are targeting the following GOP Members: Reps. Brian Bilbray (Calif.), Peter Roskam (Ill.), Robin Hayes (N.C.), Scott Garrett (N.J.), Steve Chabot (Ohio), Jean Schmidt (Ohio), Phil English (Pa.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Charlie Dent (Pa.), Thelma Drake (Va.), Virgil Goode (Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.).

An announcer at the end of the ads urges listeners to call their Representative and “tell him to stop rewarding the oil companies and start standing up for hardworking Americans.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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