TALLAHASSEE — As a candidate for governor in 2006, Charlie Crist was unequivocal: He would never support oil drilling off Florida's shores.
Crist even evoked childhood memories of cleaning birds after an oil spill in Tampa Bay. He has expressed adamant opposition to drilling throughout his career, from state senator to education commissioner to U.S. Senate candidate to attorney general.
But on Tuesday, he joined presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain in calling for an end to a 26-year federal ban on drilling, saying states should decide whether to allow rigs off their coasts, subject to safety and environmental restrictions.
Has Florida's populist-in-chief accurately sensed a shift in public opinion, or is it a calculated move to bolster his chances of being chosen as McCain's vice presidential running mate?
Crist insists it's the former: "People are suffering, and I got elected to help my state."
For others, some of whom have admired Crist's environmental leadership, it's a flip-flop of gigantic proportions.
They question how it squares with a hallmark of his administration, a push for alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and nuclear, to wean Floridians off fossil fuels. And they lament it has come on the eve of Crist's second climate change summit, unfolding next week in Miami.
"It seemed that he would be the last person to change course on this," said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida. "It is inconsistent with the way Gov. Crist has made decisions on environmental issues before."
For decades, drilling has been the third rail of Florida politics, an allusion to the third, electrified rail in a subway. Touch it and you die, politically speaking. Few politicians dared to finesse a position.
But that was before gas cost $4 a gallon at the pump. Crist is known as a politician who keenly reads the mood of the electorate and seeks the prevailing side, as he did in the Terri Schiavo case and in his everyman-style attacks on the property insurance industry.
"This governor can read the vox pop better than anyone I've ever seen," said Allison deFoor, a prominent Republican and environmental activist who was on Crist's transition team. "If he's willing to touch it, he believes the people are shifting their mood a little bit."
'He blew it'
But critics say Crist, the insurance industry basher, is now squarely on the side of the big oil companies.
"The oil companies have been waiting for years now for just an opportunity like this," said a leading Democrat, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.
A headline in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, "Governor Backs Florida Drilling," prompted Sink to criticize Crist, though not by name.
There's a risk for Crist if it's perceived he's putting his national political ambitions ahead of the state's interests.
"He blew it," said Mark Bubriski, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, predicting that Crist's shift on drilling "will dog him until November 2010," when Crist would seek re-election.
"People are going to be very unhappy that a governor they may have seen as principled and moderate is suddenly flip-flopping on an issue that creates risks for Florida, and purely for political purposes," Bubriski said.
In a phone interview Thursday from St. Petersburg, where he's recovering from knee surgery, Crist said he believes most Floridians agree with him on at least studying the need for drilling. He said his belief comes from interactions with everyday people, not polls. He discounted the McCain connection as a factor as well.
"I'm not going to advocate anything that would hurt Florida," Crist said. "I'm not going to do it."
Crist's predecessor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, supports McCain's plan (and his brother, President Bush, who also favors ending the ban). On Thursday, he called the $138 per-barrel cost of oil "a game-changing event."
But not all Republican leaders agree McCain's plan is harmless. Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, a Crist ally and the likely incoming House speaker, said he wasn't ready to support lifting the drilling ban.
Former state Republican Party chairman Tom Slade said that Crist made the right decision and that politics surely was a part of the calculation.
"You don't philosophically go against the guy who's going to be the Republican presidential nominee if you want to be his running mate," Slade said. Having just spent $60 to fill up the tank of his SUV, Slade said, "$4 gasoline can change one's mind."
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.