Oil and politics in the sunshine state

Battling to protect Florida's tourist industry from the effects of the spill has propelled



    Tourism is the number one industry in Florida, worth $60bn a year. The Sunshine State depends on the 80 million people who visit every year.

    Now however, many of the beaches are practically empty. That's because the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has scared away many tourists afraid their vacations will be ruined by the slick. 

    The Trade Winds Island Resort is some 600km from where oil washed ashore on the West Coast of Florida. But Chief Operating Officer Keith Overton says his resort, and all the businesses in the area have been affected.

    "We’re very concerned that the smaller businesses that don't have cash flow to carry them for more than several months are simply not going to make it. There's no rebuilding them after this," he says.

    Overton says Trade Winds, the largest resort on Florida's West Coast, has lost nearly $2m because of the spill and he's had to reduce his staff by 150 people.

    Even though St Pete Beach is clean, Overton says he's bracing for the financial hit to get worse because of the fear of fouled beaches.

    "The perception has been so strong in the media, it's going to take awhile for that impression to be changed in people's minds."

    On Monday, the independent administrator takes control of the BP oil spill compensation fund. Ken Feinberg is responsible for $20bn that the Obama administration made BP put aside to pay claims from people and businesses affected by America's worst oil spill.

    The oil disaster is also having an effect on political races as candidates get ready for the important November midterm elections. 

    Florida's governor Charlie Crist, a longtime moderate Republican, left the Party in April after poll numbers showed he wouldn't win the Republican nomination for the US senate.

    More popular was Marco Rubio, a conservative Republican who is backed by the Tea Party. Rubio has campaigned against big government, which he says Crist is part of. 

    At the time of his departure from the Republican Party, Crist's chances looked slim. But the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has changed that. As the state's top executive, Governor Crist was seen monitoring the beaches and battling BP for money to help Florida's slumping tourism industry.

    Polls show he's now a contender for the senate. But it's still an uphill battle.

    No independent senate candidate has ever won in Florida. Adam Smith, the political editor for the St Petersburg Times, has covered Crist for years.

    "Charlie Crist can do this, but it's very much threading a needle that's never been threaded before," he says.

    He'll have to compete with both Democrat and Republican candidates who have their party's considerable financial and logistical support. He has to go it alone and reach out to disgruntle partisans and independents who turn out on election day in much lower numbers than voters with a party affiliation.

    The ex-Republican has hired Democratic strategists to help him, and some major Democratic fundraisers are behind him. But after Tuesday’s Democratic primary, in which both President Obama and former President Bill Clinton have stumped for Congressman Kendrick Meek over billionaire political newcomer Jeff Greene, party loyalists may not be willing to take a chance on an independent. 

    While Crist is polling slightly ahead of Rubio and well ahead of either possible Democratic candidate, it’s still two-and-a-half months until the election. And though oil is no longer flowing, there are still millions of barrels of crude in the water which could threaten Florida’s beaches at any time. 

    But as Smith pointed out, "It’s kind of diminished a little bit as a hot button issue now that the oil is not leaking anymore."

    So Charlie Crist’s political fortunes will hinge on his ability to boost independent turnout and capitalise on his leadership through the oil crisis.

    There will be more on the politics of the oil spill at 01GMT on Monday and throughout the day on Al Jazeera English TV.


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