POLITICS:

In Fla. Senate race, Crist's fortunes fall with end of oil spill

The worst thing that could have happened to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's Senate bid was for BP PLC to plug its gushing oil well.

First there was BP's successful "static kill" in early August. Then President Obama took a swim with his daughter Sasha in Gulf of Mexico waters off Panama City Beach to prove that the Gulf was not poisonous.

Since then, media interest in the summer-long emergency began to wane -- and with it, Crist's poll numbers.

For four straight months after leaving the Republican Party to run as an independent, Crist rode a wave of round-the-clock disaster news coverage that made the self-styled populist a fixture on televisions and newspaper front pages across Florida. The unexpected serial drama allowed Crist to do what he does best: walk the beaches, reassure the folks and stay upbeat.

And it worked -- at least, until the crisis ended. In 15 polls taken since May -- after Crist left the Republican Party -- through August, Crist led insurgent Republican and tea party darling Marco Rubio in all but three. Every poll taken since, with only one exception, has put Rubio out front. A new Reuters-Ipsos poll of likely voters released late yesterday showed Rubio, a former state House speaker, with 40 percent, Crist with 26 percent, and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) at 21 percent.

"Without question, Charlie Crist got a bump in the polls in the U.S. Senate race by virtue of being governor of Florida during the oil spill," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist. He said Crist got "quite a bit of free or earned media during the ordeal."

Now behold what seemed unthinkable just weeks ago: History's largest oil spill is fast becoming a footnote in the impossible-to-predict, three-way Senate race in Florida, a state with a long political tradition of fighting to keep rigs off its shorelines. Perhaps even more surprising is that post-Deepwater Horizon, the Florida Senate candidate in favor of offshore drilling is leading the pack -- even before the well has been fully and finally sealed shut.

Highlighting his leadership style

What lingering impact the BP oil spill will have on Florida's Senate race will depend not only on how well things go from here (think claims processing) but also on which candidate tells the more compelling story between now and Nov. 2 about what it all meant. Did the spill prove Crist to be a troubleshooter or a flip-flopper? Has BP made good for the economic damage done to tourism or is the British oil giant getting the best of "the people's governor"? Should voters be concerned or impressed that Rubio has remained unshakable in his support for drilling offshore? Does his position on the issue even matter, given the anti-incumbent fever in this abysmal economy, especially in Florida?

Experts expect Crist to draw attention back to his leadership during the spill and his newly staked opposition to drilling before the election. Opponents, they say, will likely highlight Crist's shifting stance on oil drilling or look to change the subject altogether.

"Crist -- to the degree people think about it -- I think that people give him good marks," Aubrey Jewett, University of Central Florida political scientist, said of the the handling of the oil spill. "He was a visible presence."

"One way I like to put this is, while I don't think it's going to be a huge issue by the time November gets here, it certainly helped him for at least a couple months," Jewett said.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus recalled a primary election-night poll that asked voters what candidates did not talk enough about. Jobs and the economy ranked in the 70-percent range, while oil spill rated in the low single digits.

"That just shows you how quickly issues can be nonstop front burner and then, suddenly, be on the back burner," she said.

Crist's four-month bump in the polls was not all the result of BP. The initial surge followed his departure from the Republican Party nine days after the Deepwater Horizon exploded. That all-in political bet stole Rubio's lead and allowed Crist to differentiate himself from the charismatic, young Cuban-American Republican and steal Democratic votes by, for example, coming out against oil drilling in the midst of the disaster -- "something he wouldn't have been able to do had he been in the Republican primary," Smith said.

Democratic dilemma

Crist's defection has created a dilemma for Democrats, who face the choice of either voting for the former Republican or Meek, a little-known four-term congressman. Meek's poll numbers plunged after Crist went indie, and he has trailed ever since. Meek got a boost from picking off wealthy financier Jeff Greene in the Democratic primary and having former President Clinton campaign alongside him in August at rallies in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties and a handful of South Florida fundraisers.

"He's the only credible African-American candidate the Democrats have," said Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "They're trying to avoid a waterfall's worth of criticism if they don't back him. They have to back him to the hilt, at least until mid-October."

Sabato, a prodigious political seer, has moved from rating Florida's Senate race too close to call to declaring Rubio a "shaky frontrunner."

"If Democrats are unable to collapse most of Meek's vote, and transfer them to Crist, then Rubio will win," Sabato said in an e-mail Tuesday. "Late movement to Crist from Meek could elect Crist."

Meek has already begun to hammer Crist on his Republican past, writing on Twitter last week: "You can't spell conservative without c, r, i, s, t" -- which is also the title of a new Meek campaign video mocking the governor as a conservative on the side of developers and "special interests."

In not-so-subtle recollection of the oil spill, Crist's campaign Monday rolled out two 30-second spots that invoke spill themes without actually mentioning it in any way likely to be called crass or overtly political.

In both spots, Crist walks along the beach. He decries the gridlock in Washington and pledges to "take the best ideas" from both parties. From Democrats, that means "investing in clean energy to create jobs," Crist says to the camera.

Crist's campaign website goes further. It features video clips of the governor being interviewed on cable news about the spill. Of the 12 campaign issues spotlighted, Crist's opposition to offshore drilling and support for the environment are listed second and third, respectively, after issue No. 1: jobs.

"He doesn't think about the oil spill in political terms, but he was the leader of this state during the worst environmental disaster in its history, and by all accounts, he was exceptional," said Crist spokesman Danny Kanner, noting that the governor secured from BP both $25 million for a marketing campaign to entice vacationers to Florida despite the spill and $50 million in cleanup block grants.

Kanner then pivoted to Rubio. "What could be relevant is that Marco Rubio still believes -- despite the historical environmental catastrophe that Florida has experienced -- he still believes that we should be drilling off Florida's shore," Kanner said. "We expect voters will take a good hard look at that position when it comes down to Election Day."

In sync with the voters?

It is unclear what effect Rubio's steadfast support for offshore oil drilling will have on the final outcome, despite the spill and the accompanying shift in Floridians' attitudes against drilling. (Quinnipiac polls taken before and after the rig explosion saw Floridians move from 66 percent in support of drilling pre-spill to 51 percent opposed by June.)

Rubio explained his position in June during a broadcast of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" from Pensacola Beach: "The bottom line is there is going to be drilling off the coast of Florida," Rubio said. "There is right now. Other countries are going to be drilling in the Gulf and off of Florida's coast. Cuba's exploring, Russia's exploring. China, Brazil, Venezuela. So the issue's not whether there's going to be offshore drilling or not. The issue's whether America is going to benefit from it or not."

Both Rubio and Meek are expected to hammer Crist for his change of position. Meek took a swipe at Crist with a new TV spot and called himself "the only one against offshore oil drilling before and after the BP spill." A Rubio spokesman did not return calls for comment.

But Smith, of the University of Florida, said Floridians are not likely to care about Crist's shifting stance on drilling.

"Most Floridians don't care," he said. "They were flip-flopping as well."