* Democrats pounce to take advantage of Barton apology
* Party releases second television ad in a week on spill
By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, June 22 (Reuters) - U.S. Democrats stepped up their attacks on Republicans as friends of the oil industry on Tuesday, hoping to make Republican Joe Barton’s apology to BP (BP.L) (BP.N) a turning point in the political fight over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The Democratic National Committee released its second national cable television ad featuring Barton’s apology to BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward over the creation of a $20 billion fund to pay for Gulf damages.
The ad linked last week’s apology to other Republican comments supporting BP and said they demonstrated the party’s likely approach if Republicans win control of the U.S. Congress in November’s elections.
“The Republican Party, standing up for big oil and apologizing to BP,” said the narrator of the ad, adding, “This is how Republicans would govern.”
Along with Barton, who quickly retracted his comments and has been admonished by many prominent Republican leaders, the ad cites Representative Michele Bachmann, who called the fund “extortion,” and Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky, who said it sounded “un-American.”
Democrats hope the Republican remarks will help sway public opinion over the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico less than five months before November elections that could threaten their majorities in Congress.
The spill has been another in a series of challenges for President Barack Obama, whose response has been criticized at times as slow and ineffectual. But while the gushing oil has dominated U.S. news reports for two months, so far neither party has gained a clear political edge from the spill.
Despite relatively low marks in opinion polls for his handling of the spill, Obama has not seen a significant dip in his public approval ratings as he tries to focus public anger on BP.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday showed 89 percent of Americans think BP was at fault for the spill — but 69 percent blame the U.S. government as well.
“Obama has benefited from having BP as the principal villain in this piece — people are more critical of them than they are of the government,” said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
Republican criticism of Obama also has been complicated by years of support for fewer government regulations and the party’s “Drill, baby, drill” energy philosophy.
Many leading Republicans condemned Barton’s comments and rejected Democratic claims they are care more about oil companies than about the victims of the Gulf spill.
“BP doesn’t need an apology — they need to apologize to us, and they certainly need to cover all the costs of the cleanup and the economic damages as well,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Democrats released their first television ad last week highlighting Barton’s comments, called “Stop Apologizing.” They also have targeted members of the House of Representatives’ Republican Study Committee, whose chairman Tom Price said the damages fund showed Obama’s “Chicago-style shakedown politics.”
Editing by Cynthia Osterman