PENSACOLA — The sight of politicians has become as normal as the tourists, the tar balls and the TV crews on Pensacola Beach.
Trailed by cameras, they walk the white sand, shaking a few hands and giving a lot of interviews where they describe themselves as "outraged'' and "appalled." They point fingers over the oil spill and who is — or isn't — cleaning it up.
And they insist they are absolutely not campaigning.
"This isn't political," Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican running for governor, said last week in his second visit to Pensacola in five days. "This is about what's best for the state of Florida."
They may not want to admit it, but it's also about having a platform for state and national exposure in the middle of a hot election year.
Cameras flocked to Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, who visited Pensacola separately on June 5 but wound up on the beach at the same time (along with Crist's friend, singer Jimmy Buffett).
McCollum flew over the spill site with Crist on June 3 and then returned on his own four days later. In a news conference with U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Panhandle Republican, the two held up the perfect photo-op prop: a glass jar filled with gooey brown tar.
Not to be outdone, Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer and a Democratic candidate for governor, met with a couple dozen small business owners in a Pensacola marina last week and promised to push BP to pay for their lost income.
"We'll get to the bottom of this," she said, speaking in back-to-back sound bites. ''BP needs to start writing some big checks."
It's not all hot air: The politicos keep attention on the ailing Panhandle. They try to persuade tourists to keep their vacation plans, and they put pressure on BP and the federal government — and each other — to do more.
Sink successfully lobbied Crist to let the state offer loans to businesses to cover their spill-related losses. Crist, McCollum and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, repeatedly asked for more oil-skimming boats; Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, has promised 20 more.
But as the novelty of the tar goop washing ashore wears off, and with the federal government and BP coordinating the response to the Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill, there is little else for Florida politicians to do than seek free air time. They ramp up the number of visits to disaster-struck or soon-to-be struck areas — Crist visited a Miami command post Wednesday — and show off their common-man appeal by getting angry.
"Why is the Coast Guard waiting? Why is President Obama waiting? Why is BP waiting?" McCollum asked before news conference microphones.
Meanwhile, politicians stuck in Washington to cast votes in Congress, like Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Senate hopeful, issue news releases and participate in conference calls asking for more information. Meek, who has seen Crist poach Democratic voters, spoke at a liberal activists' event in Washington on Wednesday — which is not the same as being in the Panhandle, but gave him a chance to promote that he has consistently opposed oil drilling.
Candidates who are not in office yet can't do much of anything — something Jeff Greene, a Democrat vying for the U.S. Senate post, plainly admitted to six business owners meeting Tuesday at the Crabs We Got 'Em restaurant on Pensacola Beach.
And he scoffed at the suggestion that the spill is not a political issue to campaign on.
"Absolutely it's a political issue: It's a political issue because the oil companies are in the pockets of all the people in elected office," said Greene, a billionaire real-estate tycoon.
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.