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Spill emerges as campaign issue across the nation

Senator John F. Kerry, with Senator Joe Lieberman, spoke with reporters yesterday after an energy and climate meeting. Senator John F. Kerry, with Senator Joe Lieberman, spoke with reporters yesterday after an energy and climate meeting. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / June 30, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The BP oil disaster has seeped into congressional campaigns in states far from the Gulf Coast, as voters and candidates clash over the future of energy exploration and the relationship between government and the industries it regulates.

In some districts and states, the spill has reignited a debate over oil drilling and other energy issues, with candidates weighing local job creation against environmental protection. In other areas, the Tea Party movement’s push against big government is being parried by Democrats, who see in the oil-soaked pelicans and grieving families of 11 dead workers from the oil blast justifi cation for stricter oversight.

In New Hampshire, Democratic Senate candidate Paul Hodes has declared he will never vote to lift the ban on drilling off the shores of the Granite State, challenging his would-be opponents in the GOP primary to take the same pledge.

In Pennsylvania, the oil spill has escalated a campaign fight over natural gas drilling in the western part of the state, with the Democratic and Republican Senate foes battling over whether, and how, to extract the gas.

California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer is demanding a permanent ban on drilling off the state’s much-visited coastline; her opponent, Republican Carly Fiorina, says the disaster should not be used to kill off an industry that provides jobs.

And in Massachusetts, Representative James McGovern, a Democrat from Worcester campaigning for reelection, is asked repeatedly about the Gulf Coast spill by constituents — some of them against big government, some of them against oil drilling, all of them angry.

“I get people who tell you they want government out of their lives, and then want to know why the government isn’t doing more,’’ McGovern said about the administration’s response to the spill. “One of them said, ‘You should send the Marines there.’ I said, ‘To do what — shoot it?’ ’’

President Obama is struggling to win support for a comprehensive climate change bill that would, among other things, make industry pay for emitting carbon, a greenhouse gas. Several Republican senators, emerging from a bipartisan White House meeting on the issue yesterday, said they opposed such an “energy tax,’’ but Democrats, led by Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, are hopeful they can get a compromise.

“We are prepared to scale back the reach of our legislation in order to find [a] compromise,’’ Kerry said, adding that removing the carbon price entirely was not acceptable.

The lack of a consensus on a comprehensive approach to climate change has removed that environmental issue from the campaign trail. The oil spill and its damage, however, have uniformly horrified lawmakers and their constituents, and candidates are focusing on the more tangible aspects of the disaster as they woo voters.

The gulf area’s politicians are largely in synch on the issue, opposing Obama’s six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling while denouncing the lack of preparedness by BP and the federal government to a disaster of such magnitude. The leak has gravely damaged several coastal habitats, along with decimating the tourist and fishing industries. Yet officials there fear a massive loss of jobs related to energy production if the moratorium — which is now in the courts — stands.

Outside the region, however, the debate is falling largely along party lines. Democrats are gleefully reminding voters of Texas GOP Representative Joe Barton’s apology to BP for the administration’s “shakedown’’ of the British oil company for a $20 billion damages fund, trying to paint GOP candidates across the country as tied to big business and special interests.

Republicans, meanwhile, accuse the Democrats of unwarranted intervention and killing jobs at a time when millions of Americans are out of work.

Pennsylvania Senate candidate Pat Toomey, for example, is slamming Democratic nominee Joe Sestak for his hesitation to drill for natural gas in the state’s western region, urging a balancing of pollution protections with thousands of jobs. Sestak countered that the state needs to first make sure the drinking water is protected. “It’s not about big government. It’s about efficient, accountable government,’’ he said.

“You can’t imagine a clearer, more vivid and accurate and relevant real-world example of the Democratic Party’s year-in-and-year-out core message — that we’re on the side of average folks and Republicans are on the side of huge, heartless corporations and their greedy and inept CEOs,’’ said Jim Jordan, a Democratic consultant.

Whether voters will buy that argument, diminishing what are expected to be big losses for the Democrats in this fall’s congressional elections, is not clear.

Polling last week by the Pew Research Center showed that 39 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the oil spill. An April Pew study showed just 22 percent of those surveyed said they can trust the government in Washington most of the time.

But at the same time, voters are angry with BP’s behavior and are demanding more government regulation. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll last week revealed that 65 percent of Americans want more regulation of the oil industry, and majorities want regulation of Wall Street and health insurers.

The volatile numbers present candidates with a conundrum: bash big government or big business?

“It’s a roll of the dice,’’ said Michael Franc, a specialist on Congress and campaigns at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “We’re in an environment of an almost unprecedented level of distrust of government, and the private sector itself has reached an historic low in confidence. Which distrust trumps the other?’’

While the oil spill itself is not expected to be a defining issue in campaigns outside the Gulf Coast, underlying questions are getting traction. Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, for example, is appealing to antigovernment Tea Party activists by calling the $20 billion fund BP was pressured to set up for spill victims “a redistribution of wealth fund.’’

In the New Hampshire race, Hodes said Granite Staters are worried the oil could travel up the Atlantic coast or that drilling be opened off New England.

“I want my voice to be loud and clear, that if anybody tries to lift the ban [on drilling] off the New England coast, I intend to stand in the way,’’ Hodes said.

One of his potential opponents, GOP candidate Ovide Lamontagne, said Obama has handled the spill poorly. “People have rightfully lost faith in an inefficient, bloated federal government that is focused on bailouts, handouts, and takeovers, and not on doing the people’s business,’’ Lamontagne said in a statement.

Former state attorney general Kelly Ayotte said the drilling issue should be left to the states. “If New Hampshire says no to exploration for oil and gas off the coast, then we shouldn’t have it,’’ Ayotte said.