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Obama trails Romney in new poll. Are gas prices the key?

As gas prices have risen, President Obama has tried to defend his energy policies. The president's critics argue that he underplays the role that domestic energy production could play.

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A commuter drives past a gas station signage displaying current prices for self serve and full serve gasoline in La Jolla, Calif., last week. President Obama is under pressure in public opinion polls, and the high gas prices appear to be a central reason.

Mike Blake/Reuters

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President Obama is under pressure in public opinion polls, and the high price of gasoline appears to be a central reason.

Even though the job market has been improving, energy prices are a big concern that stares Americans in the face whenever they're at a gas pump. That could be bad news for Mr. Obama's reelection hopes, new polls suggest.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll, released Monday, tells one big part of the story: Disapproval of the president's handling of the economy stands at 59 percent of Americans, which the Post says is a record low on that issue for Obama.

A new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, meanwhile, finds that a solid majority of the American public lines up with the Republican view that the United States should put more emphasis on expanding domestic energy production.

In the Monitor/TIPP survey, two-thirds of Americans say they favor steps toward boosting oil production from offshore wells and from shale deposits on federal lands.

A majority (54 percent) support the idea of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and some 47 percent would roll back some environmental regulations in the interest of energy production.

All this comes as gas prices have risen sharply in recent weeks and have become a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail.

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"We can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices," Obama said in his weekly address to the nation on Saturday. He called for an "an all-of-the-above strategy" that includes automotive fuel efficiency as well as American-made energy.

Obama's critics argue that he underplays the role that domestic production could play in lowering gas prices.

"This administration willfully ignores rational choices that would lower energy prices and reduce U.S. reliance on foreign energy sources," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) wrote in a commentary Monday in The Wall Street Journal. The Obama administration, he said, was "slow-walking" drilling permits even before the BP oil spill, for example.

The potential of the gas price issue to affect the election is visible in the Washington Post/ABC News poll. It found Obama losing to Republican Mitt Romney, if a vote between the two were held today, by a margin of 47 percent to 49 percent. Obama led another contender for the Republican nomination, Rick Santorum, by a 49 percent to 46 percent margin.

Essentially, the poll reverses gains that Obama had made when the same question was asked a month earlier.

Gas prices may not be the only reason for that reversal, but political analysts say the issue is an important one, and it took center stage on the election campaign trail Monday.

The White House released a progress report on Obama's "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future," touting progress made in reducing US dependence on foreign oil imports. And Obama used TV interviews to defend his energy policies.

Republicans say Obama's own policies are pushing prices up.

A new TV ad from presidential candidate Newt Gingrich says gas prices "didn't go down when Obama bowed to Saudi oil princes." Former House Speaker Gingrich and rival candidate Rick Santorum were scheduled to appear at a Gulf Coast Energy Forum in Biloxi, Miss., Monday, ahead of primary elections on Tuesday in Mississippi and Alabama.

Nationwide, the average price of regular gasoline is $3.80 per gallon, up from $3.56 a year ago, according to numbers tracked by AAA.

The Monitor/TIPP poll found that Americans widely expect gas prices to rise still higher in the next three months. About 87 percent expect pump prices to rise to $4 per gallon or higher in that time frame, while 32 percent see prices exceeding $5 per gallon.

Not every American punches his or her ballot based on pump prices, of course. The Monitor poll, conducted by TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, found only a minority of voters saying the issue is likely to affect their voting decision. (And people blame a wide variety of forces for the recent price hikes. Only 12 percent put primary blame on the president.)

Yet in what could be a close November election, issues become important if they motivate sizable minorities of the electorate.

Many people see gas prices affecting their lives directly, causing them to cut back on summer vacation plans, shift to car-pool commuting, or trade in their cars for more fuel-efficient ones.

In its energy progress report Monday, the White House said that domestic oil production is at its highest level in nearly a decade and that the nation is producing natural gas at record levels. The response of critics is that these gains stem largely from policies in place before Obama took office.

Obama's energy plan also emphasizes new standards aimed at doubling automotive fuel economy by 2025, making buildings more energy-efficient, and developing alternative fuels.

Most Americans support government aid for alternative fuels, the Monitor poll found.

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