WASHINGTON &

As high oil prices drive up fuel costs, presidential candidates are likely to find themselves talking to voters who can no longer afford to keep their homes warm or their cars running.




While most of the candidates have developed "energy independence" strategies that take shape over the next two decades, few offer fixes for what could be a painful short-term crisis as gasoline and home heating oil rise above $3 a gallon.




In New Hampshire, which along with Iowa and South Carolina will host an early nominating contest, prices for home heating oil are at record highs &

26 percent above last year. But the state has 25 percent less federal aid than it did last year to help families at or below the poverty level pay their heating bills. "We know that won't serve everyone's needs," explained Celeste Lovett, program manager for the state's energy and planning office.




In Iowa and much of the Midwest, where it is common to drive long distances and where farmers rely on propane for heating, politicians will have to answer repeated questions about soaring prices for gasoline and propane, which rise and fall along with internationally set crude oil prices.




As the first prolonged cold snap hit the Northeast, Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former energy secretary, began pushing for the Bush administration to release oil from the nation's emergency stockpile. Richardson warned of an immediate crisis. "This price increase is gargantuan and unlike past price increases, it won't go away," he said. "We need big changes, fast."




The federal government is unlikely to tap the oil reserve anytime soon. Last week, the Department of Energy announced plans to continuing buying crude oil to fill the 694-million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve, noting that the reserve's purpose is to cope with oil supply disruptions &

not to manipulate prices.




Advisers to some Democratic hopefuls echoed that more-cautious stance. "I'm not a big fan of using the SPR on a weekly or monthly basis," said Austan Goolsbee, economic adviser to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.




Speaking with Goolsbee and other campaign advisers at a forum here Friday, Michael Boskin, economic adviser to Rudolph Giuliani, said the former New York mayor and Republican front-runner would pressure some oil-producing countries, such as Russia, to pump more oil. Boskin also complained that Democrats in Congress have "ruled out large blocks of our energy supply" by continuing their opposition to expanding offshore oil and gas exploration.




Others have taken to bashing oil-producing nations. "Every time you pay at the gas station, you're putting money in the pocket of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin" said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who is economic adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain.




Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee offers only a vague idea for a fix. "America must rise to the challenge and take the steps necessary to become more energy independent before this becomes a crisis," Thompson says on his Web site.




and large, the Democrats are flinging criticism at the Bush administration and the oil companies. John Edwards, a former senator of North Carolina and previously a trial lawyer, promised to investigate oil company mergers, oil market speculators and "require oil companies to invest in clean, reliable refineries."




Sen. Clinton's campaign is running television ads in New Hampshire touting a $50 billion "Strategic Energy Fund" to spur development of wind, solar and biofuels, such as ethanol made from corn stalks and other farm wastes. "And where would I get the money?" Mrs. Clinton asks in her ad. "I would take away the tax subsidies from the oil companies. They don't need your tax dollars any more."




For New Hampshire voters, many of whom will struggle to their oil tanks filled this winter, there is some hopeful news &

from Joe Bastardi, chief long range weather forecaster for AccuWeather.com. He predicts a warm spell will move into New Hampshire in mid-December and could last the winter. "I figure the average temperature will be from one to three degrees above normal," he said.