Before heading out to face a bank of television cameras Friday to squelch exasperating rumors about fuel shortages, Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pulled on a navy blue golf shirt with an "emergency management" insignia over the breast pocket.
The shirt gave Ehrlich (R) an added look of authority at a time when there was very little this governor -- or any other local or state official -- could do about fast-rising gas prices and a fuel supply that fluctuates for reasons beyond his control.
Elected leaders in Maryland, Virginia and the District have spent the past 48 hours trying to find something, anything, that would leave the impression of a strong response to the crisis. They have called for calm, urged people to conserve, battled rumors, talked tough about price gouging and gently reminded residents that the federal government controls the nation's energy policy.
But other than a few quick initiatives, such as efforts by Ehrlich and Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to get temporary federal waivers from restrictions on the sale of a more abundant but less ozone-friendly type of gasoline, they have come up with little to actually bring down prices.
"Governors obviously have limited influence other than over their own state [gas] taxes," said Robert Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Still, these are pivotal moments for elected leaders. A slow or tepid response when people are feeling vulnerable and looking to them for help can burn impressions on voters that last through Election Day.
Ehrlich, who faces reelection next year, held news conferences Thursday and Friday and increased his radio presence. His communications director, Paul E. Schurick, said the governor's top aides have devoted so much time to the state's response to Hurricane Katrina that visitors to the State House might think the storm hit Maryland.
Warner, who is considering a presidential bid in 2008, highlighted his efforts in a news release issued late Friday that quoted a gas station industry lobbyist as saying, "The governor personally went to bat for Virginia citizens and businesses, and our industry is very appreciative of all that he's done to grapple with this difficult situation."
Bullet points then detailed Warner's plan to tackle high prices, including the waiver of state restrictions that typically slow down fuel delivery.
Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic candidate for governor in an election that is just nine weeks away, did one more thing that visible officials can do in such moments: He commandeered the microphone and called on oil and gas companies to exercise corporate responsibility and voluntarily hold prices down during Katrina's aftermath.
"Virginia's economy depends on the gasoline that fuels our cars to get us to work every morning, take our kids to school and to keep our businesses going," he said in a statement. "I call today on our oil companies to do their civic duty and volunteer to hold gas prices steady."
Kaine's opponent, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R), quickly denounced Kaine's statement as political opportunism.
"In a shameless public relations stunt, Tim Kaine today proposed to do something about rising gas prices," Kilgore said in a statement. "This is particularly odd coming from a candidate who has supported raising gasoline taxes."
Warner, a businessman before he became governor, has expressed unease with the idea of governmental interference. His communications director, Ellen Qualls, said Warner also has dismissed the idea of a temporary state gas tax holiday as a gimmick that is unlikely to address the immediate problem in Virginia: the potential for a gas shortage.
Ehrlich's chief of staff, Chip DiPaula Jr., said the administration explored that option extensively. Its findings led Ehrlich to deliver disappointing news to anxious callers to his weekly talk-radio broadcast yesterday who asked about possible gas tax relief. It would take a state of emergency to temporarily reduce or suspend Maryland's 24-cents-per-gallon gas tax, he told WBAL listeners. And probably legislative action as well. "Our state law, our constitution does not allow me to do it unilaterally," Ehrlich said.
One concern state officials are pledging to address is price gouging. Warner declared a state of emergency last week to activate the state's anti-gouging law. A gas station in Centreville was cited for charging $5.80 per gallon.
In the District, where residents are less dependent on cars than suburbanites, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said there have been no official complaints about gouging or excessive prices.
Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) announced Friday that he will conduct an inquiry into rising gas prices with his counterparts from across the country. He was quick to remind state residents, "This a national problem."
Staff writers Eric M. Weiss and John Wagner contributed to this report.