Brash drilling chants unlikely in state haunted by Gulf spill

TAMPA, Fla. -- "Drill, baby, drill!" is over the hill.

Four years ago, the slogan was chanted during the Republican convention and strengthened into a resounding chorus by the November election.

Since then, the economy tanked, Sarah Palin lost her luster and the worst spill in the nation's history fouled the Gulf of Mexico.

This week, the GOP hosts its convention in Florida, a state that has long battled to keep drilling away from its tourist-beloved shores. And although the issue is no longer the state's untouchable third rail, don't expect Republicans meeting here to spotlight offshore drilling the way they did in 2008.

"I think it's going to play very little of a role at the convention," said Gainesville-based GOP consultant Alex Patton. "I think energy may play a little higher of a role in a broader context."


To be sure, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney still supports expanded drilling. One of the six points in his energy plan unveiled last week calls for opening new areas for offshore development, starting with Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina -- site of next week's Democratic convention.

Speaking recently with reporters, Romney domestic adviser Oren Cass called the former Massachusetts governor's energy blueprint the "most aggressive leasing plan ever put forward." He added, "We will have to make a determination of how quickly it is practical to expand leasing into broader areas offshore, but certainly up and down the East Coast there is potential."

But Romney and other speakers at the convention are expected to soften their rhetoric in Tampa, and other issues are expected to get top billing. Energy issues pale in comparison to the economy in Florida, Patton said, "almost like it's an afterthought right now."

"Between pocketbook issues and trying to redefine the race as saving Medicare, I don't see energy or drilling playing any significant role," Patton said. "Other [energy] options, that's what I think you will see, not just a drill, drill, drill like it was four years ago."

Several other Florida political observers from all shades of the political spectrum concur, including Mark Ferrulo, who tracks the drilling debate as executive director of the liberal group Progress Florida.

"I don't think we'll be hearing as many clarion calls for 'drill, baby, drill,'" he said. "For a number of reasons, not the least of which is this is in the backyard of where this issue ... is not necessarily a winning political issue."

Convention delegates will be staying at hotels whose business was hurt by the loss of tourism from the Gulf spill, Ferrulo said.

"Those are the same small business owners they need to win over to win the election," he said. "There's no path to the White House for Republicans if it doesn't include a Florida victory. If they're smart, they're not going to be clamoring for oil rights off our world-famous beaches."

Pocketbook concerns

Floridians are split on the issue of offshore drilling, less on party lines than on where they live, Ferrulo said. Coastal residents are more likely to oppose it. About 60 percent of Floridians oppose offshore drilling, while 40 percent support it, he said.

But the issue isn't as hot-button as it used to be, he noted. Drilling is banned in state waters and for at least 125 miles off the coast in federal waters. "It would take an act of Congress and the president to remove those protections," he said.

Residents turned against drilling during the Gulf spill. But a poll conducted just a year after the disaster for Patton's firm, Ozean Consulting Inc., found that 49 percent of respondents agreed that Florida should allow offshore oil development 100 miles or more off its coastline, while 35 percent disagreed and 15 percent were undecided. The survey of 1,477 registered voters was conducted Aug. 8, 2011, and has a 3-point margin of error.

Democrats also are less likely to make drilling an issue during the presidential campaign. Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said in an interview at his party's "war room" in Tampa that the presidential race will focus on honing messages in battleground states rather than on a nationwide strategy. "We'll talk about Medicare and income inequality in Florida," he added, while drilling "may not be as much of an issue."

David Johnson, a Tallahassee-based Republican consultant, said residents' attitudes toward drilling have softened as enough time has passed since the spill. The rising cost of gasoline has played a role, he said, as people prefer an all-of-the-above strategy to keep energy costs down.

"It's become a pocketbook-over-the-environmental-concern issue," he said. "It's a very interesting thing because you would naturally think that coastal communities especially would be vehemently against drilling within 3 miles or 10 miles or anywhere."

And it won't be as much of an issue on the national level at this year's convention, either, he added. In 2008, Palin "was Alaska and drill, baby, drill," and gas prices spiked around the Fourth of July that year.

While it was former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele who used the "drill, baby, drill" slogan during a speech at the 2008 convention, Palin later said it during the vice presidential debate and increased its popularity.

"I don't think it's going to be discussed nearly as much as it was when you had the governor of Alaska on the ticket," Johnson said. "I just think it's completely pegged to the price at the pump."

University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus likewise sees the issue rising or falling with gasoline prices.

"If you look at polls in Florida, you will see that when gas prices are high, people are more in favor of drilling, and when they're low, they're not," she said.

Divided delegation

With Florida being a "very environmentally conscious state," many past Republican governors have opposed close-in offshore drilling, including Bob Martinez and Jeb Bush, MacManus said. But it won't be awkward for the state GOP to host a pro-drilling convention, she added.

"Florida Republicans see themselves ... as sort of leading the rest of the nation's Republicans," she said. "I think they perceive the pro-environment stances, the more moderate stands on the environmental issues, they anticipate Republicans elsewhere will move in that direction."

But lately, the issue has begun to crack the Florida delegation. For many years, state politicians were united in their battle to keep drilling away from their coastlines. That began to change in 2005 and 2006, when Republicans in Congress began pushing to boost drilling.

Then-Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) -- now the state's agriculture commissioner -- in 2006 endorsed a plan to remove federal leasing bans beyond 100 miles from state shores; between 50 and 100 miles, leasing would be allowed unless states sought to block it. The measure passed the House that June, splitting the Florida delegation.

That December, Congress approved a compromise that provides a no-drilling buffer zone for Florida 125 miles south of the Panhandle coast until mid-2022, while blocking development east of the so-called military mission line about 234 miles west of Tampa for the same period.

In 2009, the Florida Legislature moved to try to force the federal government to open up leasing. The Republican-controlled state House approved a measure that would allow drilling in state waters more than 3 miles from shore. The measure died in the state Senate.

Perhaps sensing the state's shift, President Obama in March 2010 pushed a plan that called for oil and gas exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. It would have allowed development more than 125 miles from Florida's coast, in areas closer to Tampa than were allowed under the congressional deal.

But that plan was dropped after the Gulf spill.

The issue continues to divide Florida politicians. In February of this year, congressional Republicans pushed a plan that would greatly expand drilling around the country, including opening parts of the eastern Gulf near Florida's west coast, and seven Florida Republicans voted for the bill. The measure is expected to die in the Senate.


The issue has risen recently in the Florida Senate race. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson last week received an endorsement from the Sierra Club citing his "fight to halt offshore drilling in the gulf." Rep. Connie Mack, his Republican challenger, has faced increasing scrutiny about his stance on the issue.

Mack told the Miami Herald in April, "I have always said that I would be for drilling. But I think that's an issue the state should have a say in -- in determining how far it's going to be off the coast of Florida."

That prompted the watchdog to probe Mack's stance and rule his statement "pants on fire." In 2004, when he ran for Congress, Mack pledged to maintain the ban on drilling off the state's coast and called himself "a longtime opponent of drilling off Florida's coast," Politifact found.

One Republican who has never wavered in opposing drilling off Florida's coast is helping host the convention, noted Athan Manuel, a Sierra Club lobbyist on drilling issues. GOP Rep. Bill Young's St. Petersburg-based district borders Tampa Bay.

"It's an interesting little tension for them to deal with," Manuel said.

Manuel doubts the GOP will resurrect the "drill, baby, drill" chant while in Tampa, instead focusing on gasoline prices, the Keystone XL pipeline and trying "to wrap themselves in the embrace of the oil industry as much as they can."

"It will be awkward for them," he said. "It's such a huge part of their identity now."

But Patton, the Gainesville GOP consultant, disputed that the convention rhetoric could be awkward. He argues that state residents are realistic about the need for balanced energy development.

"I think most Floridians realize that we're going to have to drill or probably support drilling in the Gulf, as long as that buffer is there," he said.

Reporters Jennifer Yachnin and Elana Schor contributed.

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