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Gulf oil spill's political impact not likely to be felt in 2010 campaigns

By Felicia Sonmez

The Obama administration's lifting Tuesday of the temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico brings the first chapter of the devastating spill to a close.

The next chapter -- the spill's political impact -- is in the process of being written. But so far, it appears that if the spill does have a larger effect on politics, it will likely be felt in 2012 or 2016, not in 2010.

Just how much of an issue is the spill for voters this November? For starters, consider that of all the public polls that have been conducted in recent weeks, relatively few have posed any questions related to the spill. Among the polls that do refer to the spill, the results indicate that voters are indifferent at worst and ambivalent at best:

* In a Kaiser Health Tracking poll conducted in late September, 60 percent of those surveyed said that the oil spill will be "extremely" or "very" important to them in their vote this year. By comparison, 94 percent of those surveyed said the same about the economy and jobs, 82 percent said the same about the budget deficit and 81 percent said the same about health care reform.
* An Associated Press-GfK poll last month showed that voters are divided in their opinions of Obama's handling of the spill response: 50 percent of adults approve of the way the president dealt with the spill while 49 percent disapprove.
* Asked whether they'd be more or less likely to vote for a candidate who expressed anger over the oil spill, 48 percent in a poll conducted for Newsweek earlier this month said that it wouldn't have much of an effect. The spill was the only one of six issues where the number of voters saying candidates' anger on an issue didn't matter outweighed the number saying it would make them more likely to vote for that candidate.
* Of those in the Newsweek poll who said they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, 38 percent said that the oil spill was "not a reason" for their dissatisfaction -- more than on any other issue. (31 percent said it was one of the main reasons and 30 percent said it was a reason but not a main one.)
All of that data would suggest that politically, the spill isn't going to have much of a national impact this cycle.

Even in the states hardest hit by the spill, candidates are using it as an issue on the trail and on TV ads, but their actions haven't made much of a difference in the polls.

In the Louisiana Senate race, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) has hammered Sen. David Vitter (R) over the spill, charging that Vitter supported a "bailout for BP," a reference to legislation that would cap the oil company's liability for the spill.

"After the spill, they had a choice," a recent Melancon spot says. "David Vitter introduced a bill capping BP's liability at $150 million. Damages could top $30 billion. Vitter was caught bailing out BP."

Vitter, meanwhile, released his own TV spot last month slamming Melancon on the spill. "While Louisiana families were struggling with the tragic oil spill, Congressman Charlie Melancon flew to Canada to pick up campaign checks from trial lawyers who were there meeting on how to make money off victims of the oil spill," the narrator of the ad said.

Through it all, Vitter has maintained a consistent double-digit lead over his opponent in public polling, although Melancon's camp released an internal poll this week showing Vitter taking 49 percent to Melancon's 42 percent.

The spill also became an issue, albeit briefly, in the Florida Senate race. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (I), who left the GOP in April in the face of a tough primary challenge from former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R), in July called the Legislature into special session, asking legislators to put a referendum on the November ballot that would constitutionally ban drilling off the state's shores. The legislature took just two hours to rebuff Crist's request.

Crist's opponents, Rubio and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), seized on the special session as evidence of the governor's shifting positions on the issues; Crist earlier supported offshore drilling. Regardless, the dynamics of the three-way race have changed little since the summer, with Rubio coasting on top, Crist trailing and Meek a distant third.

One person whose national political fortunes may shift in the wake of the spill is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), according to John Maginnis, an independent Louisiana journalist who writes a popular weekly politics newsletter.

"Nationally, it may have done something to restore Jindal's image as a can-do governor," Maginnis said, noting that after Jindal's disastrous response to Obama's 2009 "State of the Union" speech, he's not viewed as "a can-speak governor."

In the midst of the spill, Jindal "was there on the front lines and was there on TV every night outside the state," Maginnis said. That could boost the political capital of the Louisiana governor, who is considered to be mulling a run for national office, perhaps in 2016.

As far as Melancon and Vitter are concerned, Maginnis projected that their arguments over the spill and ending the moratorium aren't likely to have much of an effect on voters because "Congress was seen as irrelevant to this whole process."

While the 2010 cycle is one focused mainly on the economy, the fight over spinning the spill (and the administration's response to it) may perhaps begin in earnest post-November. If that's the case, then Obama, who has put a premium on competence, may have as much at stake as anyone.

By Felicia Sonmez  | October 15, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012, Governors, House, Senate, White House  
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