Special Reports

Crist, front and center on oil, sits atop polls

TALLAHASSEE — The nation’s worst environmental disaster could be Gov. Charlie Crist’s lucky charm.

The once-foundering U.S. Senate candidate is sitting on top of the polls, largely thanks to round-the-clock — and free of charge — publicity as he monitors the Gulf oil spill.

There’s Crist donning a life jacket for a boat tour. There he is clasping hands with protesters on the sand. There he is again, fielding questions from CBS Early Show anchor Harry Smith and CNN’s Candy Crowley.

“It’s not even the oil spill itself keeping Crist’s poll numbers up. It’s the proximity of Crist to cameras near the oil spill,” quipped political strategist Rick Wilson, who is working for an anti-Crist group. “What you’re seeing is an awful lot of substance-free Charlie television specials.”

Overshadowed by the coverage of Crist as commander-in-chief in crisis mode, Senate rival Marco Rubio planned to make appearances Thursday at three back-to-back town hall meetings on the oil spill in the Panhandle.

The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20 — nine days before Rubio muscled Crist out of the Republican primary — shows how events beyond a candidate’s control can shape campaigns in unexpected ways. Now running as an independent, Crist leads Rubio by an average of five percentage points in recent polls, according to Real Clear Politics. Democrat Kendrick Meek is in third place.

“Everything is secondary now,” Crist said of his campaign, though he’s managed to attend a string of fundraisers around the state in recent weeks. “My first duty is to do my job and I’m going to do it.”

Polls show that disasters can be a chief executive’s best friend. In Louisiana, the state most affected by the oil spill, 74 percent of voters approve of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s response in a new Rasmussen Reports survey. Former Gov. Jeb Bush’s ratings went sky-high after the hectic 2004-05 hurricane seasons.

For Crist’s political fortunes, the oil spill couldn’t have come at a better time. As a tense legislative session ended and he announced he was leaving the Republican party, the governor was off to Pensacola.

He held his first media availability on the coast on May 1 and went back three more times the next week. He was back again the following weekend, meeting with fishermen in Apalachicola and members of the hospitality industry in Destin.

Crist has gone back to the Gulf Coast every weekend since, including Memorial Day. On Father’s Day, he personally called reporters to invite them on a last-minute trip to St. Joe Bay, where the Coast Guard was laying boom.

“We have to be on it as long as we need to be on it,” Crist said as he arrived in Pensacola on June 23 for an aerial tour of the approaching oil.

An hour later, he was on the beach where the gooey crude had washed up in globs for three miles. Cameras were rolling. The Associated Press circulated a photo of Crist bending down in his jeans and white polo shirt to touch the muck.

He hopped on a four-wheel drive and toured the coast briefly, stopping to shake hands with the clean-up crew in hazmat suits. “‘Keeping drinking that water and stay hydrated,” the governor cautioned.

Crist has done about 13 interviews with national television outlets and numerous briefings with Florida reporters, said Sterling Ivey, the governor’s press secretary. Critics call it self-promotion; others say he’s doing his job.

“He’s managed to do all that in such a way that doesn’t look patently political, which cannot be said for every politician that shows his face in Pensacola,” said Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh, who is organizing a oil drilling forum in South Florida for a coalition of environmental groups. “He looks like a governor.”

Rubio, once the subject of fawning coverage as he pulled ahead of Crist in the Senate race, more recently has found himself defending his support for expanding offshore oil drilling.

“The oil spill has sucked a lot of air out of the room,” Wilson said. “On the plus side and I think you’ll see this in his next fundraising report, it’s given Marco a little breathing space to work the issues and travel around the state and raise money.”

Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, of Fort Walton Beach, a strong Rubio supporter, invited him to three town hall meetings in his Panhandle district to combat what he described as “photo-op fatigue” from all the politicians trooping through. Rubio’s campaign said weather problems prevented him from getting to the meetings, but he participated in two of them over the Internet.

“These aren’t campaign stops, with Marco,” Gaetz said before the meetings in Miramar Beach, Destin and Navarre. “To put Marco in the room with stakeholders, restaurant managers and local government officials will produce more substance than I’ve seen from any other visit.”

The spill has dominated media that once buzzed with stories about Crist getting pounded in the polls, defecting from the Republican party and flip-flopping on issues including abortion, teacher tenure, the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy on gay soldiers — and even offshore oil drilling.

As a candidate for governor in 2006, Crist was staunchly opposed to oil drilling off Florida’s shores. He retreated in 2008, amid the “drill baby drill” drumbeat of the presidential campaign. Crist now says the state should consider a constitutional ban, though state law already prohibits oil and gas exploration within 10 miles of Florida’s coast.

It’s flip-flopping to his opponents, flexibility to his supporters.

“He has the good sense to change,” said Joan Schultz, a lifelong Democrat who came with a camera around her neck to see the governor at the Century Village retirement community in Deerfield Beach last week.

Also there was Democratic state Rep. Ari Porth, who co-hosted a fundraiser for Crist in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday. “His opponents call it wavering,” he said, “but I think he makes educated decisions after listening to the electorate.”