It’s the gas prices, stupid.

Since the 2012 election began — and, in truth, long before that — the political smart set has assumed that this election would be determined by what the unemployment rate in the country is on Labor Day. History — and exit polling from early voting states — tells us that when the economy is sputtering, that’s all anyone cares about.

But, assuming the politics of the economy are determined solely by the unemployment rate in 2012 misses another critical factor likely to help voters make up their collective minds: The price of gas.

Unit Drilling Co. crude oil rig 123 drills a crude oil well outside Watford City, North Dakota, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012.Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Talk of gas prices has been all the rage on the campaign trail of late. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich is attempting to resuscitate his flailing presidential campaign with a pledge that he will bring the price of gas down to $2.50 if elected president. (Other campaigns note privately that Gingrich has happened on to a powerful — if somewhat fanciful — slogan.) Both Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum are slated to speak at the Gulf Coast Energy Summit today in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Even potential future presidential candidates are getting in on the action. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is widely mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick in 2012 or as a candidate in his own right in 2016 or 2020, penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today lambasting President Obama’s energy policy.

“This administration willfully ignores rational choices that would lower energy prices and reduce U.S. reliance on foreign energy sources,” writes Jindal, adding that the White House’s national energy policy is a “subservient by-product of his radical environmental policy.”

Exit polling conducted on Super Tuesday suggests the issue is at the top of many voters’ minds — particularly in the South. (Both Mississippi and Alabama will hold their presidential primaries on Tuesday.)

All of the Republican criticism comes as the Obama Administration takes note of the one-year anniversary of the release of the president’s energy plan by issuing a progress report. Among the highlights: oil importation has dropped by 10 percent — roughly one million barrels — in the past year, energy efficiency has improved in one million homes, and there has been a doubling of renewable energy generation.

Obama also dedicated his weekly radio address to the topic. “The recent spike in gas prices has been another painful reminder of why we have to invest in this technology,” he said in the message. “As usual, politicians have been rolling out their three-point plans for two-dollar gas: drill, drill, and drill some more. Well, my response is: We have been drilling.”

The battle lines on the issue are pretty well drawn. Obama insists Republicans are engaging in meaningless sloganeering even as they are unwilling to revoke more than $4 billion in tax breaks for oil companies.

Republicans believe that Obama is putting ideology ahead of the good of the American people, citing the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline as the most egregious example. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, delivering the Republican response to Obama’s address over the weekend said that the Administration’s opposition to the pipeline is “killing energy development with overly burdensome regulations.”

The political onus for action likely lies with the president. A CBS News poll conducted at the end of last month showed that 54 percent of those tested said the president could do “a lot” about the price of gasoline, while just 34 percent said he could not.

And, in a Washington Post-Pew survey in the field in late February, the President was the figure blamed most often for the recent rise in gas prices — outpacing oil companies and nations that export oil. (That represents a change in mindset; Pew data from 2005 and 2006 shows oil companies receiving the lion’s share of blame for spiking gas prices.)

The release of the Administration’s progress report today is designed to show the public that the White House is working diligently on the issue, even if gas prices are far higher than anyone would like.

Republicans will insist more could — and should — have already been done, seeking to lay the rising cost of a fill-up directly at Obama’s feet.

Make no mistake: The unemployment rate is a telling indicator of Obama’s chances at re-election. But, so too, is the price of a gallon of gas — and whether voters blame the incumbent for the pain at the pump.

Weekend contests recap: Santorum won the Kansas caucuses on Saturday, while Romney’s campaign claimed victories in three U.S. territories — Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands — along with some delegates in Wyoming.

Santorum took 33 of Kansas’s 40 delegates by virtue of his 51 percent to 21 percent win over Romney, but Romney nearly evened up the delegate haul for the day with runaway victories in the territories — along with some delegates won in Wyoming’s ongoing county convention process..

Romney’s campaign claimed that it actually won more delegates over the weekend than Santorum’s campaign. Santorum’s campaign dismisses that claim, calling Romney “desperate.”

“Depending on news reports, we are going to pick up anywhere from 33 to all 40 of the delegates in Kansas,” Santorum said, according to ABC News. “So when Mitt Romney inaccurately states that I have to win 55 percent of the delegates or something like that in order to win, well, we are off to a pretty good start, aren’t we?”

Romney’s campaign projects that it won 38 delegates — nine each in Guam and the Northern Marianas, seven each in Kansas and the Virgin Islands, and six in Wyoming — compared to 34 for Santorum, who also won a delegate in Wyoming’s ongoing county convention process.

Those projections track closely with what AP has projected.

60-Plus ad campaign targets five Democratic senators: The conservative retiree group 60-Plus is going up with $3.5 million worth of ads targeting five incumbent Democratic senators.

The ads features musician Pat Boone arguing that the health care bill passed by Congress two years ago was “disastrous,” saying it cut $500 billion from Medicare and creates a kind of “Medicare IRS.”

“This IPAB board can ration care and deny certain Medicare treatments so Washington can fund more wasteful spending,” Boone says. “Your choices could be limited and you may not be able to keep your own doctor.”

The ad is being run against Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jon Tester (Mont.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.).

Arizona Senate candidate runs Limbaugh ad: For what appears to be the first time, a Democratic Senate candidate is trying to capi­tal­ize on the Rush Limbaugh controversy with a TV ad.

Former Arizona Democratic party chairman Don Bivens is up with a 30-second ad using Limbaugh’s controversial remarks about a Georgetown University law student against GOP frontrunner and Rep. Jeff Flake.

“In the GOP war on women, whose side is Jeff Flake on?” the narrator says after a clip is played of Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a ”slut.” The ad notes Flake opposes abortion rights and is against forcing religiously affiliated institutions to cover contraception.

Other candidates, including McCaskill, have used the Limbaugh controversy to raise money, but Bivens appears to be the first major candidate to run an ad on it.

A source close to the Bivens campaign would only say that the ad is running statewide and did not provide further details about the ad buy. Bivens is challenging the establishment favorite, former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona, in the Democratic primary for retiring Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R) seat.


Santorum says Romney “doesn’t tell the truth” on his health care bill.

If you want to see comedian Jeff Foxworthy campaign with Mitt Romney, you might be a redneck.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says he promised former senator Bob Kerrey nothing in exchange for him running for Senate. Kerrey has suggested that his seniority would be intact.

Gingrich says Romney is the weakest Republican frontrunner “since Leonard Wood in 1920.”

A Florida pastor whose church Santorum spoke at earlier this year is calling on Romney to renounce his Mormon religion, citing the church’s past policy barring African-Americans from the priesthood. (That law was changed in the late 1970s.)

Chuck Schumer says there’s no comparison between Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh.

Few in the United States think the Afghan people want American troops in their country, according a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

A former top aide to Sarah Palin says HBO’s “Game Change” is “true enough to make me squirm.” Palin has spoken out against the film, arguing that it bends the truth.

Former Minnesota state senator Tarryl Clark (D) will not abide by her party’s endorsement and will run in a primary to face Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.). Candidates in Minnesota will often pledge to drop out of they don’t win their party’s endorsement; Clark finished a distance third in an early February caucus.

New York state lawmakers appear to have abandoned plans to draw a new congressional map, leaving it to the courts, which last week released a proposal that would eliminate districts held by retiring Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) and Bob Turner (R).


The luck that propelled President Obama’s rise” — David Maraniss, Washington Post

In G.O.P. Nomination Race, Geography Has Been Destiny” — Nate Silver, New York Times

With neither Romney nor Santorum scoring a knockout, GOP race becomes a crawl” — Chris Cillizza, Washington Post