Drilling Down In Florida — Senate Candidates Spar After Spill

New battlelines are being drawn over offshore drilling in the race for the open U.S. Senate seat in Florida, and Democrats are attempting to get a political boost from Republican divisions on the issue.

From the Democratic candidate Rep. Kendrick Meek to rank-and-file state lawmakers, the Democrats are hammering at Republican Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent. They paint Rubio as an unflinching and foolish member of the “Drill, baby, drill” crowd and Crist as a political opportunist for considering their proposed ban on drilling. (Even though, of course, they want him on their side.) The issue is all the more messy thanks to the massive oil spill and the upcoming Senate race.

A Democratic source in the Florida legislature said Crist has been telling state lawmakers that he is strongly considering their request to hold a special session examining whether to ban certain offshore drilling. But of course that’s all political too, since the main advocates for the ban of drilling within 5 miles of the coastline are running for statewide office. Alex Sink is running for governor and state Sen. Dan Gelber is running for attorney general. The Democrats held a press conference Thursday asking for Crist to order the session so they can craft language to put on the November ballot.Polls show dwindling support for offshore drilling in the wake of the oil spill.

Tom Eldon, a Florida-based Democratic pollster, told me in an interview that Democrats will portray Rubio as “tough to pin down” and attempting to pander to the new worries about drilling as well as the majority of Florida’s elected Republicans who favor drilling.

“Six weeks ago it would have been ‘Drill, baby, drill, but he’s not going to say that now,” Eldon said. He added that the drilling issue could help Meek regain footing in the polls as he works on Capitol Hill to put a moratorium on drilling.

The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm said the focus will probably be on Crist, with aides noting that Crist has flip-flopped as he’s tried to appeal to various factions. He was pro-drilling when he was a vice presidential contender in 2008, for example.

“Crist goes where the political winds take him, Rubio holds firm on his position – its just the wrong position,” a DSCC aide said.

For his part, Rubio also remains focused on Crist, blasting him in a press release for “reinvention” by switching his drilling stance. A Rubio release quotes from a harsh AP article about Crist:

FACT: Crist Has Flip-Flopped On Offshore Drilling. “Crist built up crossover political appeal by appearing with Democrats Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and former President Bill Clinton to promote clean energy, but he changed a yearslong opposition to oil drilling off Florida’s coast after Republican presidential nominee John McCain said the nation needs more offshore drilling.” (Brendan Farrington, “With Election Near, Gov. Crist Changes,” The Associated Press, 12/7/09)

This issue won’t be going away any time soon, especially as Congress wrangles over the details.