Two days after the tanker American Trader began hemorrhaging off Huntington Beach, U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher appeared at the oil spill scene and said the accident underscored the need for more offshore oil drilling in California.
"I watched it on TV," said Republican Bob Ryan, a member of the Rancho Palos Verdes City Council. "I thought, 'No, Dana, stay out of this, this is not the time to discuss that issue.' "
Democrats working to dislodge Rohrabacher (R-Lomita) from his 42nd Congressional District seat hope Ryan's fears were well-founded.
Faced with a district in which Republicans hold a decisive 53% share of registered voters, Democrats are trying to turn public concern about oil spills--and Rohrabacher's advocacy of offshore drilling--to their advantage.
An early sign of that strategy is expected Wednesday, when Guy Kimbrough, one of three Democrats running for Rohrabacher's seat, plans to draw attention to the oil issue by announcing his candidacy on Huntington Beach.
"This is a wedge issue," said Steve Beale, a Democratic organizer in Torrance. "It's the kind of issue that can set Republicans against Republicans."
GOP strategists say the Democrats are clutching at straws. Said Steve Johnson, director of the Los Angeles County GOP: "When the Democrats park their cars and walk, maybe they'll have an issue."
Rohrabacher, a former Reagan speech writer elected to Congress in 1988, does not support offshore drilling across the board. He says he opposes sinking new wells within sight of shore in areas that have not yet had any drilling, unless the affected coastal communities support it.
To that end, however, he is working on a bill that would require the federal government to share royalties from new offshore oil production with the nation's coastal cities affected by the drilling.
He clearly hopes that such a measure would soften opposition to drilling in his largely coastal district, which snakes south from Torrance and the Palos Verdes Peninsula all the way to Huntington Beach. So far the local response has been hostile, however.
Rohrabacher argues that extracting crude with oil platforms and piping it ashore is sounder strategically and safer environmentally than receiving it from distant states or foreign countries by ship.
He points to the safety record of oil platforms in his district off Long Beach, Seal Beach and Huntington Beach. "A few gallons here, a few gallons there, (but) there has never been a spill," he said in an interview Thursday.
And Rohrabacher, who does not have a primary opponent, says he doubts that his position will hurt him in the Nov. 6 general election.
"It's totally defensible," he said.
Democrats say Rohrabacher's drilling advocacy could hurt him more than he thinks, particularly in light of events that might give Californians reason to fear oil spills.
The most recent, of course, was last month's 394,000-gallon American Trader spill, which killed more than 700 birds and closed 20 miles of Orange County beaches, many of them for more than a month.
Democrats also point to the Bush Administration's consideration of a plan to sell federal drilling leases in three offshore areas believed to be rich in oil and gas: Lease Sale 95 off the Southern California coast, Lease Sale 91 off Northern California and Lease Sale 116 off Southwest Florida.
Lease Sale 95 would encompass 6.7 million acres of ocean bottom stretching from the Mexican border to the northern border of San Luis Obispo County. Lease Sale 91 would cover 1.1 million acres off Mendocino and Humboldt counties.
In his latest campaign mailer, Democrat challenger Kimbrough juxtaposed his own public statements in opposition to Lease Sale 95 with the pro-drilling comments Rohrabacher made to reporters last month at Huntington Beach.
Kimbrough, a political science instructor, thinks Rohrabacher's support for oil drilling can be tied to his anti-abortion activism as proof that the congressman, formerly a Libertarian, is out of step with the GOP rank and file.
The other Democrats in the race agree. Like Kimbrough, Jim Cavuoto, the owner of a small publishing business in Torrance, and Bryan Stevens, former president of the California Teachers Assn., oppose offshore drilling and government prohibitions on abortion.
"Rohrabacher's views don't fit in with those of the average Republican voter sitting at home," Cavuoto said. "If Republicans can see the clear alternative, and that's our challenge, I believe that in this race, in this district and in this year, many Republican voters will vote for a Democrat."
Republican politicians have a range of opinions on whether Cavuoto's analysis is correct.
Rancho Palos Verdes City Councilman John McTaggart said that on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Republicans are extremely concerned about Rohrabacher's stand on oil drilling.
"This is a very important issue. Here, we have conservative people who are environmentally minded," McTaggart said. "I've got to tell you, I think (GOP strategists) are wrong if they don't think this is an issue."
Dan Walker, a Torrance City Council member, disagrees: "Republicans aren't going to vote for a Democrat because of any single issue."