Charlie Crist, Marco Rubio, and Oil Spill Politics

Once left for dead in his Senate campaign against Marco Rubio, Florida governor Charlie Crist has used the BP spill to show and leadership and rise in the polls. By Sam Jacobs.

Charlie Crist (George Skene / Landov)

Once left for dead in his Senate campaign against Marco Rubio, Florida governor Charlie Crist has used the BP spill to show leadership and rise in the polls.

Four candidates for U.S. Senate walked into a Sarasota, Florida, hotel this week, each hoping to make his case for election. Three wore the Beltway aspirant’s required uniform—suit and tie. And then there was Charlie Crist.

The state’s governor, who quit an increasingly hostile Republican primary to run as an independent, was sporting a short-sleeve khaki fishing shirt and blue jeans. He had just come from touring a biotech company that manufactures a substance that breaks down oil. Earlier, he had visited an aquarium where oil-covered mammals will be brought for rehabilitation.

It would be a painful irony for the GOP if the oil slick approaching the nation’s shores caused one of the party’s most promising stars—Marco Rubio--to lose his footing.

The Gulf oil leak has yet to reach Florida’s shores in a major way, but it has already caused a sea change in the Sunshine State’s most prominent campaign. While Crist appears cool, composed, and in control—calling for tougher legislation to shut down offshore drilling—GOP wunderkind Rubio seems out of step with Florida’s populace, supporting a policy of continued offshore drilling that polling shows voters reject.

Standing among the suits, Crist is getting to play action hero. On Tuesday, he surveyed the shoreline in Pensacola Beach with President Obama. On Wednesday, he worked the phones, talking to fellow Gulf Coast governors and federal officials who are managing the Deepwater Horizon spill. Suddenly a whirl of activity, Crist has watched his popularity crest. Last week, a Quinnipiac poll had Crist, who trailed Rubio by 8 points in May, ahead anywhere from 4 to 7 points, depending on which Democrat eventually joins the pair in the race.

“Over the last few weeks, the oil spill has been bad for Florida and the environment but good for Charlie Crist’s poll numbers,” says University of Central Florida Professor Aubrey Jewett. “He’s been able to be seen as a strong leader, as someone who is on the frontline, touring different counties and cities on the coast, seeking federal aid, and seeking more help from BP. He’s held completely blameless for the spill itself because he has nothing to do with it.”

Meanwhile, Rubio has taken a curious—if consistent—tack in the weeks since the spill. While Crist and the race’s Democrats, Kendrick Meek and Jeff Greene, have all called for a permanent ban on drilling off Florida’s Gulf Coast, a position supported by the majority of Florida voters, Rubio says he stills supports the practice.

Reihan Salam: Obama’s Shameless BP ShakedownThe BP Cast ListFull coverage of the spill“I maintain that offshore drilling is going to happen whether we’re for it or against it because Cuba’s going to drill off its coast,” Rubio told reporter David Brody this week. “We know China and Russia and Venezuela and Brazil are all exploring in the Gulf and off our coasts. I don’t know if it would make us feel any better if it was a Cuban oil rig that blew up and leaked water and petroleum into our waters.”

Rubio may benefit from the fact that Crist has changed his position on offshore drilling more times than he has changed his party affiliation. But consistency isn’t always rewarded by voters. Rubio’s faith in small government has left him in an awkward position: at once complaining that over-regulation is hurting the jobs of those who depend on the Gulf (as he did in response to Obama’s Oval Office address), while at the same time excoriating the government for failing to properly regulate the oil industry.

“Policy-wise, he is trying to be consistent, and good for him for being a consistent conservative, I guess,” Jewett, the UCF professor, says. “Politics-wise and common-sense wise, when you have this huge disaster, which everyone admits that they weren’t prepared for and don’t have a reliable way to deal with, you don’t keep drilling in deep water until we get that figured out.”

Since Crist lacks the support of a major party, his ability to raise campaign cash is seriously hampered—but the face time afforded by the environmental crisis is akin to free advertising. Not that Crist’s juggling act of candidate and governor aren’t without risks: Voters could be turned off by a politician appearing to turn their state’s crisis into fodder for a campaign.

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Gulf Coast leaders like former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and past New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin were skewered for their ham-handed response to Hurricane Katrina. The frustration that is being visited upon the federal government for the BP disaster—President Obama’s popularity numbers are at an all-time low in Florida—could start to stick to Crist. For every politician who shines in the aftermath of disaster—see current Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal—there are those who falter. In the heat of a tight Senate campaign, Crist can ill afford any kind of misstep—but so far he hasn’t made one.

Perhaps nothing has offered national Republicans a greater opportunity to attack the failures of current office-holders, from President Obama on down, than the government’s reaction to the oil spill in the Gulf. It would be a painful irony for the GOP if the slick approaching the nation’s shores caused Rubio, one of the party’s most promising stars, to lose his footing.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.