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In General Election Ads, It's Game On Over Gas Prices

In a campaign video, the Mitt Romney campaign accuses President Obama of "spending millions to sling mud — or oil — at Mitt Romney."
In a campaign video, the Mitt Romney campaign accuses President Obama of "spending millions to sling mud — or oil — at Mitt Romney."

The Republican presidential primaries may not officially be over, but political ads on both sides have moved on to the general election.

With gas prices averaging just under $4 a gallon, President Obama's re-election campaign released a TV ad this week defending the president's energy policy and directly attacking GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.

The ad and another by Romney show that gas prices have already become a general election battleground.

Blaming the Obama administration for the recent rise in gas prices is a favorite tack among all the Republicans running for president. Newt Gingrich has promised $2.50 per gallon gas if elected. And Romney has called on Obama to fire what he dubbed the " gas hike trio": the secretaries of energy and interior, and the EPA administrator.

The attack has been picked up by the American Energy Alliance, which has reportedly spent some $3.6 million to air an ad charging that under the Obama administration, "gas prices have nearly doubled. Obama opposed exploring for energy in Alaska. He gave millions of tax dollars to Solyndra, which then went bankrupt. And he blocked the Keystone pipeline, so we will all pay more at the pump."

The American Energy Alliance is led by a former lobbyist for Koch Industries, whose top executives, Charles and David Koch, are major backers of conservative causes.

The new Obama campaign ad — which is airing in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio and Virginia — is in part a response to the energy alliance charges.

"Under President Obama, domestic oil production's at an eight year high. So why is Big Oil attacking him?" the ad asks.

Then it answers the question: "Because he's fighting to end their tax breaks. He's raising mileage standards and doubling renewable energy. In all these fights, Mitt Romney stood with Big Oil for their tax breaks, attacking higher mileage standards and renewables. So when you see this ad, remember who paid for it and what they want."

Attacking Romney by name in a TV ad is a first for the Obama campaign, reflecting its belief that the former Massachusetts governor is the all-but-certain Republican nominee.

The ad also illustrates the concern that high gas prices pose political problems for the president.

"High gasoline prices and presidential politics is a very volatile mixture," said Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World. "And when they go up, motorists who are also voters get angry and they tend to hold the person who's in office responsible."

On the campaign trail, Romney laughed off the Obama ad and said the president is trying to escape responsibility for the surge in gas prices.

"So the president put an ad out ... talking about gasoline prices and how high they are, and guess who he blamed? Me," Romney said Tuesday to a crowd in Waukesha, Wis.

Romney laughed, then added: "Maybe after I'm president I can take responsibility for things I might've done wrong, but this president doesn't want to take responsibility for his mistakes."

Romney's campaign also posted a video on its website titled, "Slinging Mud," accusing Obama of "spending millions to sling mud — or oil — at Mitt Romney. Why? Because in the five states where Obama's attacking Romney, gas prices have roughly doubled. But Obama's mud can't cover up his failed energy policies."

In reality, the president has little immediate control over how much we pay at the pump, said Yergin: "In the short term, there's not very much that any president can do about high gasoline prices, because these are really reflecting what's happening in the world market."

Still, as long as gas prices remain high, the president is likely to find his energy policies under attack.

So, as its ad shows, the Obama campaign is trying to turn a negative into an opportunity. It's hoping to tie his opponent to Big Oil and emphasizing Obama's call to end industry tax subsidies.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, those tax breaks are worth some $16 billion a year to the oil industry.

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NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.