SLOCOMB, Ala. — Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida has been fighting to cut 10 cents from the state’s gasoline tax for two weeks in July. Lawmakers in Missouri, New York and Texas have also proposed a summer break from state gas taxes, while candidates for governor in Indiana and North Carolina are sparring over relief ideas of their own.
If experience with such gas tax “holidays” is any guide, drivers would save less than politicians suggest. But that is not necessarily the point.
“It’s about trying to serve the people and trying to understand and have caring, compassionate hearts for what they’re dealing with at the kitchen table,” said Mr. Crist, a Republican.
He added, “I’m supposed to respond to the people and try to make them happy.”
Rising frustration with gas prices has led two presidential candidates, Senators John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton, to promote proposals to suspend the federal gas tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
But state gas taxes, which run as high as 45.5 cents a gallon, often add far more to the price of gas than the 18.4-cent federal excise tax and are the primary cause of price disparities across state lines. So lawmakers and candidates at the state level have been getting into the act.
The response speaks not just to the reality of skyrocketing gas prices. It also highlights the political potency of anything that affects Americans’ bonds with their cars. Gas is a product that no one can ignore — and one that inspires intense emotion.
“It clearly evokes a visceral response because we’re the only industry that has our prices in two-foot-high letters on the street corner,” said John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute. “We’ve seen other things go up in prices, like milk, but if you ask 10 people on the street what’s the price of milk they may not know. All of them will know the price of gas.”
The gut-level frustration is especially visible at gas stations near borders between states with wide differences in gas taxes. The pumps here have the feel of a discount store, flush with bargain hunters and families on the edge of an economic precipice.
At two gas stations in southern Alabama, at least half the cars were from Florida, where gas taxes are 13 cents higher. A similar flow of California drivers appeared last week at gas stations in Yuma, Ariz., where gas can be more than 70 cents cheaper a gallon.
Many said that in the last few months, they had reached a breaking point with gas prices that had forced them to change their lifestyle.
Rebecca Laster, a mother of four from Campbellton, Fla., near the Alabama line, said she now stayed near her children’s school after dropping them off to avoid a second trip.
“Gas takes up a majority of what I spend,” Mrs. Laster said after putting $40 worth of gas in the tank of her minivan. Referring to politicians, she said: “I don’t think they know what it’s like to count every penny. They’ve never been in that position.”
Economic studies have shown that high gas prices disproportionately affect lower-middle-class Americans like Mrs. Laster, whose family lives on her husband’s salary from McDonald’s. And these appear to be the voters politicians are trying to appeal to.
One of the Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, has criticized the gas tax holiday as a gimmick, saying it would save drivers little money.
But his Democratic rival, Mrs. Clinton, and Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, have defended their plans with emotional appeals. A recent Clinton advertisement highlighting her support for a summer gas tax suspension ends with a raspy, apparently working-class narrator saying: “People are hurting. It’s time for a president who’s ready to take action, now.”
Suspending federal and state gas taxes, however, would not necessarily lead to a commensurate drop in prices.
Since 2000, four states have enacted gas tax holidays: Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Indiana. In general, retailers did not pass on all of the intended savings.
When Illinois and Indiana suspended about 7 cents of their state gas taxes in the summer of 2000, prices fell by an average of only 4 cents, according to a study by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which opposed the plans. Drivers saved no more than $2.50 a month, while each state lost tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue.
Previous gas tax holidays caused other problems, too. During the last gas tax suspension in Florida in 2004, people hoarded gasoline, driving up demand and prices.
It is not clear how the new proposals would prevent such unintended consequences. Texas lawmakers are not in session, so their ideas have been limited to public calls for relief.
The draft measures in Florida, Missouri and New York do not require retailers to pass on the tax suspension to consumers, nor are there provisions to prevent hoarding.
The New York plan, sponsored by Republicans in the State Senate, would suspend three state gas taxes, amounting to about 32 cents per gallon, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The Florida plan would create a tax holiday around July 4, cutting 10 cents per gallon off the 33.2 cents in total state gas taxes.
In Missouri, meanwhile, State Representative Jim Lembke, Republican of St. Louis, has sponsored a more novel approach to suspending the state’s 17.6-cent gas tax: drivers would turn in their receipts at the end of the summer and the state would cut them a rebate check.
Last week, the Missouri bill gained initial approval in the House; it has yet to be taken up in the Senate. The New York proposal has yet to pass. And the Florida plan failed in the Legislature on Friday, but Mr. Crist said he would like to revive it.
In North Carolina, the Republican candidate for governor is proposing a gas tax holiday and permanent reduction, while in Indiana the candidates for governor are debating ways to cap or reduce the growth of the tax, which rises with gas prices.
All of these plans come as other states resist letting go of gas tax revenue, which typically finances road construction and maintenance.
Minnesota’s Legislature, after the deadly bridge collapse in Minneapolis last August, enacted a law this year raising its gas tax by 5.5 cents per gallon, to be phased in through October.
And Georgia, which briefly shelved its gas tax after Hurricane Katrina, has no plans for a sequel. Instead, Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, has pushed to expand state bus service and is relying on new tax incentives for telecommuting that give people “the option not to buy gas,” said Bert Brantley, his spokesman.
At gas stations here in Alabama and across the country, support for the tax suspension plans was tepid. Echoing the findings of a recent New York Times poll, most described the proposals as obvious electioneering.
“It’s just politics,” said J. Vincent Schmidt, 23, of Panama City, Fla. “If they take the taxes away on gas, they’ll probably find someplace else to stick it in.”
Several drivers, even in Republican strongholds, blamed President Bush for high gasoline prices because of his support for oil companies and the war in Iraq. Others suggested consumer sacrifices like a return to the national speed limit of 55 miles per hour, which would conserve gas but have little immediate impact on prices.
“We’re overweight drivers,” said Mike Brinkley, 58, of Fairview Heights, Ill., who drives about 12 miles out of his way to get cheaper gas in Missouri. “We need to trim the fat.”
Few seemed soothed by the prospect of saving a few cents per gallon over the summer.
Mrs. Laster, after filling up in Alabama, said the plans would probably not cause enough of a price drop to ease her financial anxiety. Or would it?
Jeff Hamilton, the owner of a small gas station in Graceville, Fla., just a few miles away, said that when it came to gas, Americans did not necessarily behave rationally. A few pennies at the pump can mean a lot.
“It’s all psychological,” Mr. Hamilton said. “People don’t understand that if they drive a few miles to get gas that’s a little bit cheaper, they lose money.”