Gasoline prices are climbing rapidly, and with no end in sight, the debate over fuel costs has turned from a water cooler gripe into a national campaign issue.

Gas prices have never been higher at this time of year, as the cost of a gallon climbed 4 cents to $3.65 in the Washington area last week. Nationally, prices jumped 25 cents in the new year to $3.53, and experts say the trend shows no sign of stopping.

The price of fuel - now 52 cents more than a year ago locally - typically begins its annual climb in March as demand picks up and refineries shut down for maintenance and to switch to more environmentally friendly, and more costly, summer blends.

But tensions in the Middle East, particularly Iran, are prompting gas prices to spike earlier than usual. Recent sanctions placed on Iran, which U.S. and European officials believe is attempting to build nuclear weapons, have led to speculation and fear of Iranian retaliation via its oil supplies. Over the weekend, Iran said it cut off exports to France and England, driving Brent crude oil prices as high as $120 a barrel.

The climbing prices have created a new presidential campaign issue -- Republican candidate Newt Gingrich said last week prices at the pump should be no higher than $2.50 a gallon, and that the U.S. must strive for energy independence. To do so, he proposed allowing more oil and gas drilling on federal land.

Economists worry higher gas prices could hamper the country's economic recover, as consumers could be hit by another summer of "staycations" if families are driven off the road by costly fuel charges.