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CAMPAIGN 2000

On Boat Tour, Gore Avoids Specifics on Conflict Between Jobs and Environment

August 20, 2000|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELLEVUE, Iowa — Presidential contender Al Gore could hardly spend a few days cruising the Mississippi River without using it as a campaign symbol of the environment.

But along the river, the environment is more than a symbol. Between its northern source and southern mouth, six people are likely to drink the same recycled water, according to legend. The river is recreation. And it is vital transportation.

So a long-standing debate rages over what to do when the river environment and the economy the great river supports seem to conflict. Through that muddy mix Gore waded carefully Saturday during his riverboat campaign swing, pledging devotion to a clean environment and declaring of the Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush: "My opponent does not reflect that commitment in what's been going on in his home state."

"I'll tell you this," he said, a friendly crowd along the river in Dubuque warming to his message as he began a second day aboard the Mark Twain riverboat. "When we look to the future, it makes a difference if you have someone in the Oval Office . . . who is willing to stand up to the oil companies and the big polluters and say the families of this country deserve better: clean air and clean water and a clean environment."

Calling attention to the need "to have clean water and a river that is revitalized," Gore said: "There are a lot of polluters who want to be able to cut corners and not spend the money necessary to clean up their own mess and just dump it in a way that hurts everybody else--into the air, into the water, into the global environment--because they just put their short-term profits over the best interests of the people."

He added: "It's wrong, because all of our children ought to be able to breathe fresh, clean air, in cities or suburbs or farms or wherever they live. And when they come in from playing, they ought to be able to turn on the tap and get a glass of fresh, clean drinking water, without worrying that it might be polluted."

But that was as far, and as specific, as the Democratic vice president went as he used the river as a metaphor, and photogenic backdrop, while floating downstream, Iowa to port, Illinois to starboard, and his sights set on nailing down the crucial Midwestern swing states in the presidential campaign.

As much as Gore argues that there need be no conflict between protecting jobs and protecting the environment--indeed, he says he would create jobs by building, for sale around the world, anti-pollution technology--he faces a tough sell.

Standing at the back of a crowd in Dubuque, Gary Edwards was skeptical. Edwards raises corn and soybeans on 900 acres near Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Would Gore's environmental program mean more government regulations, and if so, would farmers be compensated if the new rules increased their operating costs? There was no answer in the vice president's brief comments.

Edwards' immediate issue is whether the Clinton administration will support a proposal to double the size of the 600-foot locks, located at several points along the river, which make the Mississippi a great highway of commerce. Longer locks would support longer barges, speeding the trip of grains and goods to buyers around the world. The administration has not announced its position.

Edwards wore a T-shirt emblazoned on the back with the message: "New locks mean more farm exports."

Agricultural interests and barge operators support the plan. Environmentalists, concerned about the effect of increased river traffic and greater tinkering with the river flow, are generally opposed, as are railroads, which stand to lose business if barge capacity is increased.

There's no percentage for Gore in stepping forward on this issue, said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "It's something Gore doesn't want to make a decision on," he said in a telephone interview. "He'll be caught between agricultural interests and environmentalists."

Newsweek reported that a survey of 800 registered voters found the vice president leading Bush, 48% to 42%, with Green Party nominee Ralph Nader at 3%, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan at 1% and 6% undecided.

"I really don't think polls matter. People right now are beginning to pay close attention to the election," he said to reporters aboard the riverboat. But then he added: "I must admit, polls have a little more relevance as we get closer to the election."

What Gore really wanted to talk about was the dice game in the press work space. With mock outrage worthy of the Claude Raines character in "Casablanca," he demanded an explanation of "this outrageous gambling." Turning to a boat crew member, he asked, "Did you see what they're doing on your boat?"

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