LOS ANGELES -- John F. Kerry played enthusiastically to Americans' aggravations with high gas prices yesterday, stopping at a Shell station in San Diego to bemoan the premium rate of $2.37 a gallon and then proposing steps to lower costs, while arguing that dependence on Middle East oil has put US troops at risk.
Not to be outdone in an intensifying showdown over gasoline prices, the president's reelection campaign released a television commercial, titled "Wacky," that said Kerry once favored a 50-cents-per-gallon increase and flashed a graphic on the screen that read, "Kerry's Plan: Pay $657 More a Year For Gas."
Kerry's campaign scrambled to rebut the GOP charge that he wanted to hike gas prices. Advisers said Kerry only spoke up for the 50-cent increase idea in 1994 and did not support such a tax hike when he had the chance.
At a rally with more than 1,500 students at the University of California at San Diego, the Massachusetts senator blamed Vice President Dick Cheney -- a former oil company executive -- for higher gas prices, tweaking him for leading an energy task force at the White House.
"Instead of revealing a new set of attack ads, I think Dick Cheney ought to reveal who the oil executives are that he met in secret with to set the oil policy of the United States of America," Kerry said to a largely exuberant crowd. As Kerry supporters applauded, a cluster of Bush supporters at the gathering rapped flip-flops over their heads to evoke GOP caricatures of Kerry as reversing himself on many issues.
Kerry also cast the gas debate as a national security issue, pledging to fund science research on alternative energy in order to avoid going to war over oil, which many Democrats cited as the reason for the first Gulf War against Iraq.
"I will put in place the principle, long since overdue, that no young American in uniform ought to ever be held hostage to America's dependence on oil from the Middle East," Kerry said, in a familiar line from his stump speech that took on new resonance in the gas debate. "The United States of America can't drill its way out of this predicament -- we have to invent our way out of it."
Campaign spokesman David Wade said Kerry was not suggesting that Bush had led US troops into war over oil. "He was, as he's said again and again, talking about a vision that frees the United States from oil in the politically toxic, volatile Middle East and some of the most fragile regimes on the planet," Wade said.
In Washington yesterday, the Kerry campaign released a "fact sheet" that mocked Republican claims that the senator was a consistent supporter of higher gas taxes. The document, detailing Kerry's Senate votes on the issue, showed that he supported levies on airplane fuel and, occassionally, for higher gasoline taxes that would help reduce the budget deficit and fund highway projects.
Of the 1993 vote dealing with airplanes, the fact sheet stated: "This one only deals with Airplane fuel! Terrible for people who drive airplanes to work."
While the political purpose of Kerry's California trip went off without a hitch, as he raised more than $6 million at four fund-raisers -- including one last night in Beverly Hills that was expected to draw actors Ben Affleck, Warren Beatty, and other celebrities -- the ferocity of the Republican attack over the $2-$3 cost of California gas threw the campaign onto the defensive, some aides said. Kerry advisers released his proposals to lower gas prices in bits on Monday night and yesterday morning, and the unscheduled stop at the San Diego gas station hit a few bumps.
More than a dozen cars and buses, led by a fleet of police motorcycles, shut down Interstate 5 north and four lanes of traffic near the Shell station for several minutes so the senator could hold a photo opportunity for news cameras there. There appeared to be only one customer, Kevin Burlingame, for Kerry to talk to about the gas prices, which ranged from $2.15 to $2.37.
"What do you think of these gas prices?" Kerry asked.
"Boy, they are pretty high," said Burlingame, 38, who handles sales and marketing for his family business, which makes concrete roof tile. "We ship a lot of stuff so it affects every aspect of our business." He also told Kerry he was "very positive about the economy."
Asked by a reporter whether he thought a president could influence gas rates, Burlingame said, "He can introduce policy, but overall I don't think he can affect gas prices."
Kerry's plan to lower gas prices includes temporarily rerouting crude oil that would go to the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve and increasing pressure on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and others to increase oil production.
Meanwhile, OPEC members, meeting in Vienna yesterday, signaled support for higher crude prices as Saudi Arabia's oil minister indicated that his country planned to cut oil production, not increase it.
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.