Colorado politicians are finally starting to pay attention to the issue of rising gas prices as a political strategy tool, although the leadership value loses some air with President Bush making noise about doing more to lower prices. I have written about this several times before, and I’m still amazed that it hasn’t been used more often already as a campaign issue. As the Associated Press reports, the issue is growing strong legs — but this has been going on for months:

The high cost at the pump has turned into a major political issue, with Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for a problem that is largely out of Congress’ control. Republicans are worried that voters paying more than $3 per gallon would punish the party in power. Democrats want to make that happen.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter today unveiled an energy plan that talks about combating rising gas prices, though without mentioning too many specifics. From the Rocky Mountain News:

Democrat Bill Ritter announced today he plans to tour the state and highlight successful alternative-energy projects. He also released a seven-point energy policy.

“For the second time in a year, gasoline prices have once again reached the $3-a-gallon breaking point,” said Ritter, the likely Democratic nominee for governor. “Residential and commercial heating costs shot through the roof this winter. Colorado needs strong, responsible leadership that offers 21st century answers to what has become one of our most urgent and important problems.”

Your response to this might be, Well, duh! If that was your response, that’s sort of my point. When gas prices first started approaching the $3 per gallon mark last August I was surprised to see that nobody was using the issue for their campaign. Some members of the Colorado legislature have suggested things like lowering gas taxes, and that’s a good start, but outside of the capitol’s gold dome we hadn’t heard much about the issue until Ritter’s proposal today.

Rising gas prices are one of those rare golden issues for politicians that everybody understands. If you have good health care, then health care reform may not be a big issue for you. If you don’t have kids, or if you are happy with your child’s school, then education may not be an issue that presses your political buttons. But rising gas prices affect everybody, especially in a state like Colorado where far more people drive than use public transportation. Rich or poor, nobody likes paying $3 per gallon for gasoline, and the first candidate to come up with a good plan for reducing those prices will get a lot of votes because of it.

Think about it: What other issue has such widespread appeal? Honestly, I can’t come up with another one off the top of my head. If you tell voters that fixing high gasoline prices will be one of your top priorities, people are going to pay attention, and they are going to like you for it.

Of course, talking about rising gas prices and figuring out what to do about them are two different things altogether, but in politics you often just need to discuss the issue to come across as the candidate who is in touch it; you don’t need to actually do something about it. Look at Rep. Tom Tancredo – he is unquestionably the most outspoken politician in America on the issue of illegal immigration, but he never really does anything about it and his proposals (let’s deport everybody!) are unrealistic and unmanagable. But that hasn’t stopped him from becoming the immigration reform champion.

The same opportunity exists here in Colorado, and Ritter is the first to have (somewhat) picked up on it. If voters think that Ritter is the gubernatorial candidate most likely to address the issue of rising gas prices, he’ll pick up a lot of votes from the average joe who doesn’t really get motivated by the traditional issues like taxes, health care, education and the economy.

If oil is black gold, rising gasoline prices are just as valuable politically. It’s just strange that we’ve seen such a lag time in the discussion.