For all their partisan bickering, Florida Republicans and Democrats have usually come together on one point: opposition to offshore oil drilling. But soaring gas prices and presidential politics have ruptured that consensus and now threaten to split the state GOP. The resulting disarray could have significant implications in the Sunshine State, which both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama consider vital to their chances in November.
In the wake of McCain's announcement this week that he favored overturning a moratorium on drilling along the country's coastline—a reversal of his past position—some Florida Republicans have quickly fallen into line. Gov. Charlie Crist, often mentioned as a potential veep pick for McCain, and Sen. Mel Martinez abandoned their past opposition to offshore drilling and declared that they were now open to the idea. "It has become increasingly clear that we must be pragmatic in protecting both our beaches and our economy," said Crist in a statement.
Other Florida GOPers, however, reiterated their opposition. "Our energy policy should not completely disregard the importance of protecting our natural resources and the environment," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a statement, noting that her district includes a marine sanctuary with one of the largest coral reefs in the world. "We must continue to protect and preserve our economic interests by safeguarding against near-shore drilling." Among the other state Republicans who rejected McCain's position: Rep. Vern Buchanan, who represents the coastal city of Sarasota, and the incoming Speaker of the Florida House, Ray Sansom.
Still others sought to stake out more nuanced positions. Florida state Sen. Burt Saunders, who chairs the environmental preservation and conservation committee, says he's recently come around to the idea of offshore drilling. Yet he makes clear that it wouldn't solve the nation's immediate concern about rising fuel prices, since it would take at least eight to 10 years to get an oil platform up and running. "What bothers me is that you will have politicians saying that drilling will drive down the cost of fuel," he says. "That is a false promise."
The most anticipated reaction came from former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who sought to limit offshore drilling while in office (and, some say, helped keep his brother's advocacy of drilling in check). "The world has changed" as a result of skyrocketing oil and fuel prices, the president's brother said at an education summit Thursday. "We need a national energy policy that includes increasing supplies of oil and gas inside the United States." However, he continued, it should be done in a way that protects the state's coastline. His proposal: that Congress reconsider a plan he and former California congressman Richard Pombo put forth unsuccessfully in 2006. It would have imposed a 100-mile protective buffer around the state while also opening up millions of acres in the central gulf for new exploration. (Currently, drilling is prohibited within 125 miles of the Panhandle coast and within 235 miles of Tampa Bay.)
Despite the cracks McCain's announcement is creating in the state GOP, he's apparently decided that he's found a winning issue. A Rasmussen survey conducted in the Sunshine State after McCain's comments seemed to back him up. When respondents were asked about McCain's and Obama's positions on offshore drilling and whether drilling would impact fuel prices, 61 percent sided with McCain's views, compared to 34 percent who backed Obama's (state Democrats argue that the way these questions were phrased skewed the results). "I don't think this will weaken support for McCain" in Florida, says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "The economy is trumping the environment for some people."
But the reaction from other quarters has been searing. An editorial in The Miami Herald called McCain's proposal "a shameful, cynical calculation." Environmental groups, already furious over McCain's opposition to funding for Everglades cleanup, condemned it as a disastrous approach that would do nothing to bring down gas prices. And Democrats, of course, turned the outrage dial to maximum. "Voters aren't stupid, and they don't like being tricked," says Mark Bubriski, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. "If McCain and Crist are willing to shamelessly deceive us about this vital issue, can Floridians really trust them on anything now?" Lance DeHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University, thinks McCain's move could backfire on him in the state. "This policy has the potential to mobilize Democrats and moderates in Florida against McCain," he says. "I think it gives Obama an issue that is perfect … to hammer McCain on." Consider it the latest front in what's sure to be a bruising battle for Florida.