WASHINGTON — Not in modern times has a candidate for president or even statewide office won Florida without promising to keep oil and gas rigs away from its coasts. But never before has someone run when gasoline cost $4 per gallon.
In calling for an end to the 26-year-old federal ban on energy exploration off most of the nation's coast on Tuesday, Sen. John McCain has embraced what has been a taboo position for politicians in Florida.
But support for his plan from top Florida Republicans suggests off-shore drilling is not the political loser it once was, or at least is now open for debate. That change is most striking in the new support expressed by Gov. Charlie Crist, who just last week said he was not dropping his opposition to drilling off Florida's coast.
But with McCain's switch to a proposal that would let states decide whether to allow drilling off their shores, Crist says he would consider it.
"I hope I have a reputation of wanting to protect this environment, because I do," Crist said Tuesday. "But I also have to balance that, I think, as every citizen does, with what's happening to Florida families."
Democrats and other critics called it the biggest flip-flop of his administration. "We couldn't be more disappointed," said Mark Ferrulo of Progress Florida, a group that tracks a wide range of issues, including drilling. "This has to be pure politics. It's certainly not science, and certainly not economics."
But Crist, who is often mentioned as a potential running mate for McCain, isn't going it alone. As McCain outlined his plan in Houston on Tuesday, several Republican members of Congress from Florida said they liked his proposal to let states choose to drill in exchange for lucrative royalties from energy companies.
Some said they hear from constituents daily about high prices and, though they realize more drilling is not an immediate panacea, they have softened their opposition to drilling.
"I think it's changed, and I think $4 gas has done that," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. "And I hear that from people everywhere I go, that this is compelling. People want to see more production; they understand it's a supply and demand problem."
Asked if McCain is risking votes in Florida, a state he dearly needs, Martinez shrugged. "The governor seems to have agreed with him … and I'm kind of agreeing with him. So maybe things are changing in that regard."
Polls show growing support nationally for more domestic production, with a recent Gallup poll finding 57 percent of Americans in favor of more offshore drilling. In 2006, when gas was about $3 per gallon, a St. Petersburg Times poll found Floridians were about evenly split over lifting the moratorium.
Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House, also welcomed McCain's proposal and called it a step in the right direction. In June 2006, Putnam helped marshal 13 other Florida Republicans to vote for a similar measure allowing drilling as close as 50 miles from shore, and closer if states wanted it. It passed the House but died in the Senate.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Floridians' views have shifted markedly as a result of the spike in gas prices," Putnam said.
Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, has not always opposed drilling proposals and said she supports McCain's plan. Among those who opposed Putnam's drilling bill two summers ago was Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, but he switched sides Tuesday. "Circumstances have changed, I have changed, and I believe the people of Florida have changed," he said. "We're facing a serious energy emergency, and we need to take real steps to bolster our energy independence and security."
But some experts said whether the Florida electorate buys into McCain's argument depends on how much voters pay attention to the fine print: The correlation between opening more of the nation's waters and lower prices is tenuous, and certainly not immediate.
A year and a half ago, Congress passed a compromise that bans drilling within 234 miles of Tampa Bay through 2022 in exchange for tapping 8.3-million acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. At the time, industry groups assured lawmakers the legislation would calm energy markets. Martinez acknowledged it hasn't, though production in that area has not begun.
The United States has just about 3 percent of the world's oil supply, yet consumes 25 percent of oil produced worldwide.
The presumptive Democratic nominee, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and his surrogates on Tuesday bashed McCain's plan as short-sighted political gimmickry.
"For a major candidate for president to say that his answer is to drill off the coast of the United States, it just shows a lack of vision, and one that is not grounded in reality," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Not all Republicans embraced McCain's plan, including Reps. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota and Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, who said the nation has more appropriate places to drill.
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said he needed more information from the McCain campaign before he made up his mind but acknowledged it may be time to reconsider the ban.
"I think that's negotiable," Young said. "I'm willing to revisit this if we don't jump to a conclusion or make a political decision. But I believe we have to wean ourselves away from foreign oil."
Times staff writers Bill Adair, Adam C. Smith, John Frank and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at allison @sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.