With oil no longer gushing from the BP well in the gulf, support for a constitutional ban on drilling in Florida waters is fading, most surprisingly in the Panhandle.
A new poll conducted for the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13 shows 41 percent of Florida voters support a ban on offshore drilling, while 49 percent oppose the idea. In May, 44 percent supported the ban and 44 percent opposed.
The telephone survey of 602 registered voters was done Aug. 6-10 by Ipsos Public Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan research company based in Washington, D.C. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Support has trailed off chiefly in the North Florida/Panhandle area, which has endured the effects of the oil disaster. In May, 52 percent of voters in the region, many of them Republican, supported a ban; now only 36 percent do.
The overall shift is slight but notable because it illustrates how brief the window was for getting a proposed ban before voters. The political momentum is now diminished.
Moreover, it could embolden Republicans in the Florida Legislature who had shelved plans to open up drilling after the BP rig explosion in April.
"It would probably be a much less risky proposition now and moving forward than it was, say, a month ago," pollster Julia Clark said.
Republicans had already rebuffed a push by Gov. Charlie Crist to put the issue before voters this November, contending state law already prohibits drilling in state water. (The ban would not have prevented the BP disaster because the Deepwater Horizon rig was in federal waters.)
Crist convened a special session in July, but debate was promptly cut off in the House and Senate. To many Republicans, it was a political ploy to boost Crist's bid for U.S. Senate as an independent.
But while the incoming leaders of the House and Senate, Dean Cannon and Mike Haridopolos, say they will not pursue drilling over the next two years, the petroleum industry could once again harness public opinion in a call for action.
The poll results put Florida back in line with much of the country, where more oil drilling is generally viewed as necessary, Clark said.
"We need to take all the precautions we can, but I don't like being dependent on foreign oil," said Beverly Cutter, 80, a Republican from Pompano Beach who participated in the poll.
Mike Peppers, 31, an insurance agent and Republican from Vero Beach, is also concerned about national security and "ridiculously high gas prices." He supports drilling and feels "much safer after they've capped this thing."
Nicholas Conce, 45, a Palm Harbor voter with no party affiliation, said he still supports a ban on drilling in state waters.
"From what BP showed, they can't be trusted to do the right thing," he said. "We need to seriously start looking at alternative energy. We have sunshine out the kazoo and we aren't really doing anything about it. We have wind, we have sun and we have a lot of potential here. And we can use it to create jobs."
The crisis in the gulf — its long-term environmental effects still unknown — had been a daily presence in the news, and it elevated the issue among Florida voters, according to the poll, though the economy, by and large, is the dominant issue.
The issue comes amid a tight election season, and politicians tried to seize the spotlight, none more so than Crist, who made repeated visits to the Panhandle.
The poll shows that 46 percent of voters approved of his handling of the oil disaster, and 24 percent disapproved.
"He was crying wolf about the oil spill and it barely touched Florida at all," said Deanna McVey-Collins, a 66-year-old independent voter from Alachua.
President Barack Obama fared worse, with 39 percent of voters saying they approved of his handling of the spill and 44 percent disapproving.
Overall, Obama's approval is upside down in the Sunshine State, with 44 percent approving his job performance and 51 percent disapproving, a downward trend from the last poll in May. The economy continues to sputter, particularly in Florida.
Obama's support remains extremely high among Democrats (78 percent) but equally poor among Republicans (11 percent). Independents sit in the middle.
Barely registering in the public mind with their roles in handling the oil spill were Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum and Democratic Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, both of whom are running for governor.
Voters "either don't know enough about the individual or know enough about their decisionmaking around the spill itself," Clark said.
Times/Herald staff writers John Frank and Cristina Silva contributed to this report.