Reporting from Santa Barbara — With images of the Gulf Coast oil spill still fresh in voters' minds, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer campaigned in Santa Barbara on Wednesday, arguing that Carly Fiorina's support for additional oil drilling off California's coast could threaten the jobs of nearly 400,000 workers whose livelihoods depend on the coastal economy.
Deliberately making an economic argument as well as an environmental one, Boxer spoke before a backdrop of blue and yellow kayaks at a small adventure touring company where the owner introduced her by asking the audience to imagine how their lives would change if "the devastation in the Gulf Coast were happening here."
"We're not going to have 'drill, baby, drill' off the coast," Boxer told the small crowd, using a phrase popularized by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008 when gas prices had shot up to nearly $5 a gallon. "For people in this state that love their environment, that love their coast, that love their ocean, that really appreciate the 400,000 jobs that are coastal-related, this race is very pivotal."
The three-term senator called her Republican rival's openness to offshore drilling "a direct attack on our $23-billion coastal economy" and said the last California senator to take a pro-drilling stance was S.I. Hayakawa. "That was 28 years ago, OK? We cannot go back to that yesterday."
In making her case in Santa Barbara, where an oil platform blowout in 1969 slicked 35 miles of coastline with black goo, Boxer was attempting to strike an emotional chord with coastal voters while portraying her opponent as out of touch. Fiorina, working the other side of the environmental issue, has been making a similar effort recently by campaigning in the Central Valley among voters who blame environmental restrictions on irrigation for the poor farm economy.
Recent polls show that a growing majority of California voters oppose additional drilling offshore. And because of Boxer's strong liberal leanings on most issues, UC San Diego professor Thad Kousser said, drilling may be one of the most effective wedge issues at her disposal.
"The Republican Party has lost the most support in the last 20 years in these coastal areas where voters are conservative on fiscal issues, liberal on social issues and liberal on environmental issues," Kousser said. "So she is definitely trying to get those Santa Barbara Republicans, Central Coast Republicans, even Los Angeles Republicans."
Fiorina's pro-drilling stance in the primary surprised some political analysts because opposition to drilling has long been a stance that Republican candidates have used to appeal to middle-of-the-road California voters. Don Sipple, a Republican media strategist who advised former Gov. Pete Wilson and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said that particularly after the Gulf oil spill, it continues to be "a high-intensity emotional issue to a lot of people in coastal California."
"There was a brief period of time when gas was at $4.60 a gallon where even coastal voters were open to more offshore drilling if it was going to lower their gas prices, but the disaster in the Gulf then put that to a quick end," Sipple said. Though many other issues and personal qualities "are going to factor a bit larger in the race," he said, "among a certain number of voters, this a smart move by Boxer."
Fiorina, who campaigned in San Diego on Wednesday and touted a new endorsement from the National Federation of Independent Business, has said that California must take advantage "of every source of energy we have in an environmentally responsible way." During one primary debate, she blamed "extreme environmentalists" for preventing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
After the Gulf oil spill, the former Hewlett Packard chief executive said government regulators clearly had been "asleep at the switch," but that their failures should not become an excuse to block additional drilling which, she said, would create more jobs and reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
Fiorina spokeswoman Julie Soderlund said the Republican candidate supports the expansion of offshore drilling in California only "if the people of California approve it."
Boxer, she said, is "using distortion to deflect from her terrible record when it comes to job creation. If she wants to talk about 400,000 jobs, she should talk about the 400,000 jobs that she promised Californians when the [federal] stimulus passed that haven't been delivered."
Fiorina also has come out strongly against a proposal for a permanent ban on additional drilling off the West Coast, legislation that is co-sponsored by Boxer, Calif. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and senators from Oregon and Washington. Fiorina said the proposed ban unfairly takes the "decision out of Californians' hands."
The Obama administration has barred new offshore drilling off the California coast through 2017. But hinting at the challenges facing Democrats this year and potentially in 2012, Boxer said the moratorium through 2017 could be rolled back "by the next president if it's not Barack Obama."
She quickly added that she expected Obama to win reelection, "but you don't know what the future holds."