Gulf Disaster Spills Over Into Florida Politics

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Michael Spooneybarger/AP

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (left) and entertainer Jimmy Buffett walk along Pensacola Beach, where Buffett plans to open a new hotel.

Before the Gulf oil spill, a majority of Floridians supported offshore drilling. Now most residents oppose it. The spill has also helped Gov. Charlie Crist become more visible as he campaigns for the U.S. Senate.

For weeks, one story has dominated the news in Florida as it has around the country. Tar balls have been washing up on beaches in the Florida Panhandle. State officials are concerned about the Gulf oil spill's impact on the environment, fishing and Florida’s No. 1 industry: tourism.

And most days, the spill coverage also includes at least a brief appearance by the state's governor, Charlie Crist. Just about every day, he’s somewhere in Florida meeting with visitors, tourism officials or emergency management authorities. In St. Petersburg recently, he was greeted with applause at a meeting with fishermen and charter boat captains.

Just a day earlier, he was walking the beach in Pensacola with singer-businessman Jimmy Buffett. He says Buffett was there to help plan the opening of a new Margaritaville hotel. Of Floridians, Crist says: “We’ve been through a lot together. We’re going to continue to go through a lot together.”

Florida's Request To BP: $100 Million More

Last week, Crist asked BP for an additional $100 million to study the threat posed by the oil to the state’s waters and shoreline. That’s on top of $50 million he requested and received from the giant energy company earlier in the week to cover the state’s response to the spill.

Crist is an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate, and he’s staying in front of the public daily without any overt campaigning.

To Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Crist’s Republican opponent in the Senate race, Marco Rubio, it’s more of the same. Burgos dismisses Crist as a politician more interested in photo ops than hands-on management.

“He’s doing what he’s always done, which is, seize opportunities to get in front of the media, hold press conferences and ultimately, put the spotlight on him and his efforts,” Burgos says.

For Crist, it’s paying off politically. Polls show him leading both Rubio and his likely Democratic opponent in the Senate race, Rep. Kendrick Meek.

Public Turns Against Offshore Drilling

The oil spill has had a more immediate and potentially more far-reaching impact on Florida politics. It was the catalyst for an overnight turnaround in public opinion on offshore drilling. Before the spill, a majority of Floridians -- like the country as a whole -- supported it. Since the spill, while Americans in general have largely continued to support offshore drilling, Floridians have turned against it

As it happened, at the time of the oil rig’s April 20 explosion, the state Legislature was poised to pass a bill allowing drilling in waters just three miles off Florida’s coast. Mike Haridopolos, the incoming president of the Florida Senate, says the Legislature has now permanently tabled the issue because of the spill.

"Until we know exactly what happened, we’re going to kind of let it be,” Haridopolos says.

Pursuing An Offshore Drilling Ban

Seizing on the shift in public opinion, anti-drilling activists now want a constitutional amendment that would ban offshore drilling in Florida waters.

“Imagine had that spill been gushing out thousands of barrels a day right off the coast within three or four miles of the coast," says Dan Gelber, a Democratic state senator and candidate for state attorney general. "We would have already seen it on our beaches.”

Republicans have decried the constitutional amendment and a proposed special session as pure politics -- an example of elected officials using a catastrophe for political gain.

Crist says he wants to convene a special session of the Legislature but is meeting resistance from Republicans in the statehouse. As time goes on, though, and tar balls find more and more Florida beaches, Crist believes the pressure will build.

“The closer this stuff gets to us, I think some members of the House are going to be persuaded to say ‘Enough’s enough,’ ” Crist says.

With the initial cleanup slated to continue for months at a minimum, the oil spill and the government response are likely to remain in the news and -- in Florida, at least -- play a role in November’s general election. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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