RALEIGH — The television commercial airing across North Carolina shows an oil-soaked man being pulled out of the surf by workers who clean him up like a pelican rescued from the Gulf of Mexico.
"We pulled one out of the water this morning completely covered in oil," says a worker in the ad, which first ran Thursday. "The name is Senator Richard Burr."
The BP spill may not have worked its way into the Atlantic, but oil has come ashore as the first issue in North Carolina's Senate race.
The ad, paid for by a coalition of environmental and union groups, is the fourth round of advertising by Democratic groups and their allies that attempt to portray the Republican senator as cozy with the oil industry.
Most of the commercials are billed as issue ads, asking people to contact Burr to express an opinion. Burr, who is up for re-election, says they are thinly disguised campaign ads.
"It's gutter politics," Burr said in an interview.
"Clearly their attempt is not to influence policy, and it's not to help with the problem in the gulf," Burr said. "Their sole intent is the assassination of my character relative to the election, and they are using oil as the tool."
Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Burr's Democratic challenger, said Burr's record of defending the oil industry during his nearly six years in the Senate and 10 years in the House is an issue. She said Burr does the bidding of business rather than acting in the broader public interest.
"The oil issue is going to be big," Marshall said in an interview. "He stood up for these oil companies. He apparently thinks they are going to heal themselves. He has taken a lot of money. He has listened to them."
The influx of television ads from third-party groups comes at a crucial moment in the campaign. Burr has raised $10 million. Marshall spent nearly all of the $846,000 she had raised on last month's primary runoff.
During the 2008 Senate campaign, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole had a large money advantage over her Democratic challenger, Kay Hagan, but a huge infusion of support in the form of television ads paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee proved to be an equalizer in helping Hagan upset Dole.
Burr is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which helps set energy policy.
Since 2005 when he entered the Senate, Burr has received $118,450 in contributions from oil industry executives and political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group. He is not among the top 20 recipients of oil industry contributions in Congress.
Jobs and independence
Burr said he had been guided by two major principles regarding oil: the need to maintain the thousands of jobs in the industry and the need for the U.S. to wean itself from dependence on foreign energy.
Last week, Burr and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, introduced legislation that would encourage the country to become less oil dependent through tax policies to encourage nuclear power and electric and natural gas vehicles.
"I've had 16 years of policy work in energy," Burr said. "So I would hope people would judge me on what I have proposed and how I have voted. ... I've tried to refine the energy blueprint for America. At certain times it has been to promote the renaissance of nuclear generation of electricity."
Burr has been measured in his comments about BP and the oil spill. Speaking last month in Research Triangle Park, he said he has had the chance to talk with technicians with Shell and Exxon who had been advising BP on how to respond, and he seemed satisfied that the industry was using the best technology available to address the spill.
"Unlike some," Burr told an accountants group, "I am not going to second guess what is going on."
He said the U.S. doesn't have any choice but to explore for domestic oil. As a surrogate for presidential candidate John McCain in 2008, Burr enthusiastically supported offshore drilling.
Burr has been mildly critical of the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama for not providing more flexibility to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, in responding to the spill. He also fired off a letter to the administration, saying he was "deeply troubled" that it had not suspended a law that would allow foreign vessels to help with the cleanup.
Democrats say Burr has a pattern of being a close ally of the industry, whether helping pass $14 billion in tax breaks to oil and gas companies in 2005, or voting against a windfall profits tax for them in 2005, or voting in 2001 against legislation requiring fuel economy standards for passenger automobiles and light trucks.
About the TV ad
The ads this summer have built a steady drumbeat that Burr is too cozy with big oil.
The state Democratic Party created a Web ad criticizing "Big Oil Burr," and in June, Americans United for Change, a liberal Washington-based group, spent $334,000 on two ads in North Carolina.
"The oil isn't just polluting the gulf - it's polluting our politics," the announcer says before adding that Burr has received nearly $500,000 in contributions from oil interests. (The ad includes contributions Burr received as a House member).
The current ad campaign is paid for by the League of Conservation Voters, VoteVets.org Action Fund, the Sierra Club, and the Service Employees International Union.
The ad is designed to build support for the energy and climate bill before the Senate, the groups maintain. The $2 million, two-week ad campaign is running in four states, but "a very significant portion" of that amount is being spent in North Carolina, according to Kate Geller, a spokeswoman for the League of Conservation Voters.
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