Oil Spill Has Lifted Charlie Crist, Hurt Meek and Rubio

President Obama and Gov. Crist
President Obama and Gov. Crist on Pensacola Beach
MIAMI (2010-8-2) -

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico isn’t just an environmental catastrophe. It is a big political story in Florida...and the narrative is mostly about Gov. Charlie Crist.

Two years ago, GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made a campaign appearance in Clearwater, and led the crowd in the now well-known chant, “drill baby drill.”

It was a different time. Gasoline was four dollars a gallon and it was still possible to win an election with “drill baby drill" as a slogan. Not too long after that, Gov. Charlie Crist acknowledged that offshore drilling remained controversial, but he had found a way to live with it.

“As long as its far enough, safe enough and clean enough, it's something we're willing to consider because I think it’s important that we're economically independent,” Crist said at the time.

But in April, the well-head on the Deepwater Horizon blew out in the Gulf of Mexico. It didn’t obliterate public support for offshore drilling, but University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus says it undermined it enough to make choices difficult for Florida politicians.

“The first inclination is to say that anyone who is pro-drilling is a loser, but the polls say Floridians are somewhat mixed. Many remember the four dollar gasoline prices of 2008,” MacManus said.

For Crist, the oil spill was a gift. Having abandoned the Republican Party to campaign as an independent, his campaign contributions were drying up.

But by showing up on the oil-threatened Gulf Coast day after day, he was on the news constantly, just as if he had bought advertising. MacManus says it was priceless.

“It also helped reinforce the idea that he was a leader. On the heels of his veto of Senate Bill 6, his stance on the oil spill…up to this point in his gubernatorial career, he hadn’t had those kinds of moments,” she said.

Crist began to rise in the polls. He was attracting Democratic voters away from Senate candidate and Miami Rep. Kendrick Meek.

The oil spill hurt Meek's campaign in another way. MacManus says President Obama began losing popularity in Florida because of his slow response to the oil spill.
In addition, Obama has not come to Florida to campaign for Meek, and Meek's campaign is stalled.

Political scientist Terri Fine of the University of Central Florida in Orlando says politicians, from Crist and Obama, have learned an important lesson from the public response to the oil spill.

“It's all about responsiveness. Citizens are looking to see who is responding, how well they are responding and whether the responses are adequate and appropriate,” Fine said.

Crist found another way to respond. He called the Legislature to Tallahassee and asked it to pass an anti-oil drilling constitutional amendment to send to the voters.

“I just don’t think I would be doing my duty as your governor if I didn’t call this session and at least try,” he said at the time.

Republicans accused the governor or grandstanding, refused to pass the amendment and adjourned the special session in less than an hour.

More than 100 days into the oil spill, Crist remains a nominal front runner in the Senate race, leading Republican Marco Rubio -- who favors an expansion of well-regulated offshore oil drilling -- and well ahead of Meek and Meek's Democratic primary opponent, Jeff Greene.

But when the oil spill is permanently stopped, the lift it provided Crist's campaign may be as fickle as the tide.

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