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BEYOND GULF, OIL TILTS POLITICS

Democrats and Republicans near and far from the disaster site spin the spill to their advantage.

New York Times

MIAMI - Political candidates from coast to coast - and many states in between - are redirecting their campaigns in an emotional, frantic effort to turn the oil spill to political advantage.

Democrats and Republicans fighting for Senate seats in the Midwest are portraying oil company contributions as a stain as ugly as the rusty sludge on Southern beaches. Candidates for governor from Florida to Massachusetts now stump for novel ideas to plug the hole (why not air bags?) and to clean up the mess (hair, hay, bacteria?), while in Washington, each party insists that the spill will help it in November.

In the minds of politicians and strategists, the oil has practically become a giant ink blot, a Rorschach test in which each of the opposing sides sees proof of "the larger narrative."

Republicans say the spill is a lesson in incompetence: The Obama administration has fumbled, they argue, highlighting government's failure not just with the oil but also with the economy, the deficit, health care and war.

Democrats in turn see the spill as a consequence of Republican ties to Big Oil and deregulation.

"This is emblematic of the Republican philosophy," said Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Each side seems determined to channel public outrage over the spill into local issues and larger ideologies. Already, the spill has become a potent subject in at least a dozen states, including some far removed from the disaster's immediate effects.

In Michigan's first congressional district, for example, Gary McDowell, a Democrat, is campaigning for a permanent state ban on drilling in the Great Lakes. Although federal and state law already prohibits such drilling (Canada has 513 natural gas wells in Lake Erie), McDowell has argued that without greater protection, "Michigan's waters could become the next victim of a tragic oil spill disaster like the one caused by BP."

Farther south, in the Kentucky Senate contest, Rand Paul, the Republican nominee and tea party favorite, has run into trouble for the opposite extreme: Democrats and some Republicans have scolded him for calling President Barack Obama's criticism of BP "un-American."

Meanwhile, oil company ties have become pressure points for both parties.

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Rep. Joe Sestak, the Democrat, is accusing his Republican opponent, Pat Toomey, of putting "Big Oil ahead of the American people" after receiving $96,050 from the oil and gas industry since 1989.

Still, the spill is most clearly transforming races in and around the Gulf of Mexico.

In recent weeks, Gov. Charlie Crist has shown up repeatedly at Pensacola Beach, with and without Obama, often with his hands on his hips and outrage in his voice.

Many politicians have expressed outrage over the spill, but a Senate candidate, Rep. Charlie Melancon, Democrat of Louisiana, has also shed tears, when lamenting in a congressional subcommittee hearing that "everything I know and love is at risk."

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