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Originally published Friday, February 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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$4-a-gallon gas? Predictions surprise Bush

The bulletin reached President Bush toward the end of his news conference Thursday. Peter Maer of CBS News Radio asked: "What's your advice...

WASHINGTON — The bulletin reached President Bush toward the end of his news conference Thursday.

Peter Maer of CBS News Radio asked: "What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing ... "

"Wait, what did you just say?" the president interrupted. "You're predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline?"

Maer responded: "A number of analysts are predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline."

Bush's rejoinder: "Oh, yeah? That's interesting. I hadn't heard that."

The president, once known for his common-guy skills, sounded eerily like his father, who in 1992 seemed amazed to discover that supermarkets had bar-code scanners.

The $4-a-gallon forecasts were reported widely in newspapers and on TV in the past week. The White House press secretary took a question about $4 gas at her Wednesday media briefing. A poll last month found that nearly three-quarters of Americans expect $4-a-gallon gas.

The president, however, had difficulty grasping the possibility, even after Maer told him.

"You just said the price of gasoline may be up to $4 a gallon — or some expert told you that," Bush repeated. "That creates a lot of uncertainty."

Bush's acknowledged unfamiliarity with the recent cost of gasoline produced some fumes at the pump.

At a Shell service station in San Mateo, Calif., the price of a gallon of regular had already reached $4.29, well above the California average of $3.42, as measured by AAA.

"Bush is out of touch with a lot of things we are facing today," said Marisa Cajbon, 33, who was filling her Toyota Sequoia SUV. "I have to buy gas. I need to work. I have two kids. I think it's unfortunate. I think it's a crime."

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Bush also tried to put the best spin he could on months of bleak economic news. "I don't think we're headed to a recession, but no question we're in a slowdown," he said.

When NBC's David Gregory invited him to criticize Democratic presidential candidates for not knowing much about the expected new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, Bush replied: "I don't know much about Medvedev, either."

Agence France-Presse's Olivier Knox asked Bush why he was going to the Olympics in China despite the country's human-rights record. "I'm a sports fan," the president said.

Bush waded into presidential politics, criticizing the Democratic contenders for their positions on free trade and taking particular aim at Sen. Barack Obama for his comments about the wisdom of meeting the new leader of Cuba.

Bush did not attack by name either Obama or his rival for the party's nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. But there was no masking his disdain for the Democrats' positions on several campaign issues, including the war, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the political transition in Cuba.

While both Democratic candidates have called for renegotiating NAFTA, the president stood behind the pact.

"The idea of just unilaterally withdrawing from a trade treaty because of trying to score political points is not good policy," he said.

He reserved his harshest comments for Obama's recent statement that he would be willing to meet the new leader of Cuba, Raul Castro, "without preconditions."

Bush has refused to meet with foreign adversaries such as Kim Jong Il of North Korea and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

"What's lost by embracing a tyrant who puts his people in prison because of their political beliefs?" Bush said in reference to Castro. "What's lost is it will send the wrong message. It will send a discouraging message to those who wonder whether America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners."

Bush went on: "I'm not suggesting there's never a time to talk, but I'm suggesting now is not the time — not to talk with Raul Castro."

But "sitting down at the table, having your picture taken with a tyrant such as Raul Castro, for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him," Bush said. "He gains a lot from it by saying, 'Look at me, I'm now recognized by the president of the United States.' "

Material from The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Chicago Tribune is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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