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Oil switch gives Democrats the chance to drill Crist

The first flashes of the 2010 race for governor of Florida flickered across cable TV screens Friday morning, but most people probably missed it.

Appearing on the CNBC Squawk Box program, Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink weighed in on the week's top story: Republican Gov. Charlie Crist ending his long-standing opposition to oil drilling off the Florida coast.

While Crist stood with John McCain in backing a lifting of a federal ban on drilling and letting states decide whether to drill, Sink opposes drilling, period. She sounded like the Crist of old.

"I was stunned by this turn of events. I think this is a very shortsighted approach to put our economy at risk," Sink said on CNBC. "We all know that the first drop of oil wouldn't even come for 10 years."

Sink said Florida should be working to lessen its reliance on oil, and that "the big oil companies are snookering America" by exploiting the current oil crisis and $4-a-gallon gasoline so they can maximize profits.

As Sink spoke, a banner at the bottom of the screen flashed the words "Florida CFO outraged over governor's switch on drilling."

Crist's willingness to consider drilling felt like a transformational moment. No wonder Sink took off the kid gloves.

For the past year and a half, since she and Crist were elected, Sink has shown Southern hospitality toward the governor in their side-by-side Cabinet dealings.

They have disagreed, but cordially. And while Sink did not personally attack Crist on CNBC, she made it clear that his switch on drilling has suddenly altered the state's political dynamics.

To Democrats and even some antidrilling Republicans, Crist's decision to wade into the Gulf of Mexico on oil drilling means he no longer looks invincible, despite his 61 percent approval rating in the last Quinnipiac poll.

This is not to say that Sink's 10-minute TV shot was a preview of her candidacy for governor (she has given no indication she would run). The point is, Democrats are going to use drilling to "open up" Crist, as political consultants say, and weaken him.

To Democrats, Crist's newfound support for drilling is not only a flip-flop; it undercuts his image as a "green" governor and as a populist who's suspicious of big business. Wouldn't Crist be bashing the oil companies the way he vilifies insurance companies?

"This dents his green image a little bit," said Eric Draper, policy director of Audubon of Florida.

Note that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly disagreed with McCain.

Crist sounded convinced that his total record will show that he is an environmentalist.

"You know how much I love Florida and how much I care about our beautiful environment. Nothing has changed in that regard," Crist said by phone Thursday. "That's why I think studying it is so important . . . If we do this, we have to do it in a way that's as protective as possible of Florida's beautiful beaches."

He said he has assigned his chief of staff, Eric Eikenberg, to gather data "so we can be more and more knowledgeable about how we can help this struggling economy and the price of fuel."

As Sink left the screen, the anchors announced that they had invited Crist to appear but he declined, citing his recuperation from arthroscopic knee surgery.

Now there's a first: A Democrat blasting Crist on TV and Crist unable to respond.

It was just a few minutes of cable TV. But suddenly, Florida politics feels very different.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Oil switch gives Democrats the chance to drill Crist 06/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 23, 2008 10:58am]
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