ALL of Washington is asking the same question these days: Can President Bush improve his ratings while we continue to suffer daily combat losses in Iraq? The results of the latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey answer the question with a resounding if hard to believe "yes."
Asked to describe in their own words what issues they most hear people talking about, 29 percent mentioned gas prices, 13 percent cited Iraq, and only 9 percent reported hearing about immigration around the water cooler or the kitchen table.
As incredible and almost sacrilegious as it seems, Iraq has faded as the dominant political issue even though we are still losing 50 to 60 good young men and women there every month.
And even after a prime-time speech and a solid week of congressional action on the subject immigration runs a distant third to pump prices as the major topic of conversation these days.
In fact, even though polls show approval of Bush's speech last week, the survey reports that the president's approval rating dropped another three points to 35 percent. Soon it will be as Elton John said: too low for zero.
The growth of the gas-price issue presents Bush with an incredible opportunity to change the subject of our political debate from a problem he can't solve before the 2006 elections Iraq to one he can begin to solve gas prices.
The danger for Bush, of course, is that he is an oilman. And a Texas oilman at that. Republican and Democratic populists alike reject the idea that the imbalance of supply and demand is driving up gas prices and report instead that they see a conspiracy of oil company executives at work. So long as he seems still an oilman, they see Bush as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
And they have a point. With oil stockpiles at near-record levels, the oil futures market seems to be irrationally betting on higher and higher prices, driving the costs ever upward.
There is a very good chance that the market will come back to reality and that prices will settle down again, regardless of long-term changes in demand or supply. But Bush must get on top of the issue particularly if there is a chance to show progress before November, 2006, he must stake out his program so he can crow about how well it worked.
The key for the president is to show how independent he is of big oil by leading the movement toward alternative fuels in a big way. He should declare the equivalent of the bomb-building Manhattan Project and embark on a crash course to switch us from gasoline to alcohol- and hydrogen-based fuels.
By moving away from gasoline, he can rebut the presumption that he is in the pocket of the oil companies and become the leader of a national crusade against gasoline.
And he can bring it back to Iraq and the War on Terror pointing out that his drive for alternative vehicle fuels is the key to disempowering the radical Islamists. Without our oil money, they are nothing. So, for Bush, the gas price issue is a twofer.