In Switch, Florida's Crist Eyes Offshore Drilling

Florida politicians of both parties have long opposed offshore drilling for oil. But Gov. Charlie Crist — seen as a potential running mate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain — has changed his stance and now supports offshore drilling.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. President Bush says it's time for the United States to lift a ban on offshore oil drilling.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Every American who drives to work, purchases food or ships a product has felt the effect, and families across the country are looking to Washington for a response.

INSKEEP: The president spoke after gas prices exceeded $4 per gallon. The Republican presidential candidate John McCain says he favors that drilling, also, and so now does the Republican governor of Florida. Until recently, Charlie Crist was more concerned about protecting Florida's beaches and the tourist economy. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports on the switch.

GREG ALLEN: In recent years in Florida, there have been few elected officials of either major party who've supported offshore drilling. Former Governor Jeb Bush opposed it, as did the state's entire congressional delegation.

Current Governor Charlie Crist promised to keep Florida's coastlines free of oil drilling in his inaugural address and many times since. It's a pledge John McCain supported until this week, when he called for lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling that's been in place for nearly 30 years.

Even more surprising was Governor Crist's reaction, reversing his long-held position. Crist gave as the reason his concern about the impact high gas prices are having on Florida's families.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): My, you know, heart bleeds for them. And, you know, I hope I have a reputation of wanting to protect this environment, because I do. But I also have to balance that, I think, as every citizen does, with, you know, what's happening to Florida's families? What's happening to this economy? How dependent are we on foreign oil?

ALLEN: McCain says as president, he'd let states decide whether to allow drilling off their coasts. Crist agrees, saying it's an issue of states' rights and worthy of study. While that's far short of outright support for offshore drilling, it's still a major departure in a state where the issue has, in the past, been considered a third rail, politically lethal to politicians from either party.

Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): Well, this is a pretty radical about-face for Governor Crist.

ALLEN: Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson is a long-time opponent of offshore drilling, helping to fashion a bipartisan coalition that now appears to be in danger of crumbling. Crist isn't the only Florida Republican who's shifted his position on the issue. Members of the state's congressional delegation, including Republican Senator Mel Martinez, are also endorsing McCain's proposal.

Nelson says Republicans who believe offshore drilling will help bring down gas prices are just plain wrong.

Sen. NELSON: Gas prices will not go down with additional drilling offshore. As a matter of fact, they are ignoring their own administration agency that says that drilling offshore will have no effect on gas prices until after the year 2030. That's 22 years in the future.

ALLEN: Along with the potential change in state and federal policy, this week's shift on the issue by McCain, Crist and other Republicans suggests something else, that public opinion on offshore oil may be changing, as well.

A recent ABC-Washington Post poll found nearly 80 percent of Americans say high gas prices are causing them financial hardship. A Reuters-Zogby poll reports nearly 60 percent support expanding oil drilling.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says those numbers are not lost on Crist.

Professor SUSAN MacMANUS (Political Science, University of South Florida): The governor's described by everyone here as a populist who's very good at reading the polls, and so his movement in the direction of at least exploring the possibility of drilling is sort of in step with his persona as a politician. He's always been known as a risk-taker and being out ahead of the curve on public opinion, and so we'll see if that's the case here.

ALLEN: There is, of course, another factor that may play a role in Crist's evolving position on offshore drilling. He's a strong McCain supporter who campaigns with the Arizona senator, and he's often mentioned as the potential running mate. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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