WASHINGTON -- Iowa Democrats sent a chill through auto industry executive suites when they made a presidential front-runner of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Kerry is best known to the industry as the champion of a proposal to raise fuel economy standards by 50 percent. He wants new-car and new-truck fleets to average 36 mpg in a decade or so. Today's new vehicles average about 24 mpg.
The Senate soundly defeated the Kerry proposal in March 2002. But as president he could appoint officials to the Department of Transportation who could use regulatory power to raise corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE.
"The legislation he proposed on the Hill wasn't realistic with regard to what could be accomplished and in what time frames," says Tim MacCarthy, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufactuers. But he says Kerry might moderate his views if he were in the White House.
An official in the Washington office of one of the Big 3 predicts candidates will soften their CAFE positions when they campaign in Michigan, Illinois and Ohio. The executive asked not to be named.
Compared to his Democratic rivals, Kerry already is a moderate on fuel economy, according to a survey by a coalition of consumer, environmental and business groups favoring fuel conservation.
In addition, Kerry showed a willingness to work with the industry by issuing a campaign energy plan that includes hefty subsidies for automakers to convert to advanced, fuel-saving technologies.
The candidate survey, released this month by the Sustainable Energy Coalition, showed that Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio all favor combined car and truck CAFE of 40 mpg.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean favored a standard of 37.5 mpg. Former Gen. Wesley Clark said technology exists to make vehicles go twice as far on a gallon of fuel, but he did not specify a CAFE number.
The one prominent candidate who did not favor sharply higher CAFE, UAW-backed Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, has dropped out.
Neither Rev. Al Sharpton nor President Bush responded to the survey.
Generally, automakers argue that they, too, support improved fuel economy but want to accomplish it with advanced technology, not regulations.
The Bush administration has adopted an increase in light-truck CAFE, from 20.7 mpg to 22.2 mpg, to be phased in during the 2005 to 2007 model years. It has not sought a change in the car standard of 27.5 mpg.
Meanwhile, many in the industry are banking, literally and figuratively, on President Bush to win re-election. Research organization Center for Responsive Politics said that, as of Nov. 26, it had identified nearly $1 million in contributions to the Bush campaign from people with ties to the automobile industry. Millions more came from business executives who could have automotive ties.
Four years ago the center found people with identifiable links to the industry gave 10 times as much money to the Bush campaign as to Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid.