Crist pumps oil spill for political advantage 

As the oil slick approaches Florida's shores, Gov. Charlie Crist has shifted his neutral stance on coastal drilling and is now calling for a constitutional ban against it.

His new position could give him a political advantage in the three-way race for the United States Senate, but it could also contribute to the view among some voters that the Republican-turned-independent candidate is a political opportunist who can't be trusted.

Crist in recent weeks has overshadowed his competitors in the Senate race as he manages the oil spill crisis in Florida. Crist has formed task forces, set up hot lines for affected businesses and appeared frequently in front of the cameras to talk about the response to the spill.

"I think he's looking quite good," said political scientist Rick Foglesong of Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

Crist has also changed his mind about drilling. While he once appeared at least open to the idea of oil and gas exploration off Florida's coast, Crist now wants Florida voters to consider a constitutional amendment that would permanently ban any kind of drilling between three and 10 miles of the shoreline.

Crist last month said he planned to call a special session of the state legislature to consider putting a constitutional ban on the November ballot. The law already prohibits offshore drilling, but a constitutional amendment would make it harder to overturn the existing ban.

Crist's Republican opponent, Marco Rubio, called the move a political stunt.

Days earlier, a Mason-Dixon poll found that 55 percent of Florida voters were opposed to drilling in Florida's waters, up from 31 percent less than a year ago.

"Rubio has a tough job because he was a big drilling guy and now he's sort of forced to defend that," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc." But the knock on Crist right now is that he's not principled and he goes with the wind and he'll go whatever way is good for Charlie Crist. If he overplays his hand on [drilling], it might really feed into the narrative that he only cares about himself."

Crist has also recently reversed his stance on the "don't ask don't tell" policy for gays in the military and he now supports overturning it. His announcement followed polling that showed overwhelming public opposition to the policy.

Rubio is working hard to portray Crist as a flip-flopper and he recently posted to his campaign Web site video footage of Crist clapping and nodding next to Sarah Palin as she gave a speech endorsing the expansion of domestic drilling.

The real political loser in the oil spill crisis may be Rep. Kendrick Meek, the top Democratic candidate for the Senate seat.

Crist is siphoning Democratic support away from Meek, who is now facing a challenge from wealthy businessman Jeff Greene.

Foglesong called Meek "dead in the water," and said it will be hard for Meek to exploit Crist's flip-flopping.

"In Florida, having a Republican-leaning, independent candidate for Senate who is a political opportunist and who listens to the people and blows whichever way the wind blows is not all bad," Foglesong said.

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Susan Ferrechio

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