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Time was when about the best price you could get for your vote in this country was a shot and beer from the ward heeler at the corner bar.

Now you can get free gasoline and tax cuts. And that's just for openers. By the time this Clinton-Dole thing is over, you and I could be living on Easy Street.The vote-buying is under way in earnest.

It was kicked off when gasoline prices shot up so fast the climb would make a Blue Angels pilot gulp. We've gone from some of the lowest pump numbers in years to some of the highest in nothing flat.

No one seems to know why. There are as many theories as there are commentators. Personally, I suspect Big Oil. That has always stood me in good stead in the past.

Big Oil can be suspected of just about everything, from war in the Persian Gulf to supertanker accidents and fluctuations in the sperm count of frogs.

Big Oil, of course, is not always at fault, but no matter. The law of averages is on your side and, anyway, Big Oil makes a fine all-purpose villain, a far more vivid stage presence than, say, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderbergers or any of the other obscurities favored by our keenest conspiratorialists.

Didn't former President Bush, once an oil man himself, recently tour the Mideast oil states? 'Nuff said!

So, Big Oil it is. But what to do?

Credit Bob Dole, Republican presidential nominee presumptive, with opening the bidding. The senator proposed scrapping the 4.3-cent gasoline tax increase the Clinton administration enacted as part of its budget-deficit reduction.

Clinton has jumped into more parades than a 4-year-old with a plastic drum, but after twitching toward this one, he apparently has held back.

Not to be outdone, however, he released 12 million barrels of oil from the nation's strategic reserves. This is supposed, by expanding the supply, to drive the price down.

Actually, neither stratagem is likely to do much. The 4.3 cents were little noticed when they were added, and will be little noticed if removed. Big Oil will just push the price up another 4.3 cents anyway.

And the 12 million barrels won't be a big enough drop in the bucket to raise its level usefully. Anyway, Big Oil will just suck another 12 million barrels out somewhere else.

Has anyone paused to notice that both approaches are wildly irresponsible?

Though sharply reduced in the last couple of years, federal budget deficits continue. Canceling the gasoline tax, a la Dole, will deepen them again. And the oil Clinton is selling is from reserves called strategic for, well, strategic reasons. The stock is for national emergencies, not passing bothers.

Still, if this is the way the election game is to be played, it behooves us voters to start getting up the price lists for our votes.

Part of gate from the national parks? Perhaps divvy up the money from selling an aircraft carrier and four or five B-2s? Repeal of Reagan's tax increase?

Or maybe we should hold out for a bid from Big Oil. It's got more money than the government.