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Environmentalists Describe a Cautiously Green Gore

Campaign: Allies on the issue find him passionate but always aware of political perils.


WASHINGTON — Almost every environmental lobbyist in the capital has a story about Al Gore.

There was the time they sought tougher regulations on energy use, and the vice president told them: "The people haven't given us permission to lead on this issue." Or the time they asked him to push legislation on global warming, and he dismissed them with: "You guys don't have a single vote in the Senate for this." Or the battle for new clean-air regulations when Gore hesitated for months before finally coming down--privately--on the environmental side.

For years, Gore's highest profile has been his standing as an environmentalist. His most passionate stands have been on the dangers of automobile emissions and global warming. He wrote a book that called the automobile "a mortal threat to the security of every nation" and compared environmental destruction to the Holocaust.

But in office, the Al Gore who sounded like a crusading prophet has acted as a careful, pragmatic politician. Most environmentalist leaders still say Gore is the best vice president they've ever had; most environmental organizations have endorsed him for president. But they also complain about how cautious he has been.

"We wish he had been bolder," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, a Gore supporter. "I wish he would pass more often, instead of sticking with his running game."

Others are harsher. "The Clinton-Gore administration has been excellent on the soapbox, excellent at talking about global warming--but in practice, the United States has been almost the most counterproductive nation, a leader of the forces of delay," charged John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA.

When a reporter relayed those complaints, Gore smiled wanly, arched an eyebrow and warbled: "You always hurt the one you love."

Billed by Republicans as an Extremist

The vice president can afford some ironic detachment. A year ago, Republicans threatened to paint him as an environmental extremist and force him to defend his goal of making the internal combustion engine obsolete.

Instead, it's GOP candidate George W. Bush who's on the defensive, saying it's not his fault that Houston's air is the most polluted in the nation. In polls, voters say they like Gore's views on the environment better than Bush's by a wide margin. Even in Michigan, a closely contested state where Republican Gov. John Engler has called Gore a threat to jobs, polls show the vice president in the lead.

Gore's record on the environment echoes his approach to many other issues: rhetorical zeal, a wonkish enthusiasm for the details of policy--and practical caution when political risks arise.

"He always wanted to be out front on the environment when it was free, but he never wanted to cross the line when it wasn't," said a former aide to President Clinton who asked not to be identified. "It wasn't black and white. It was shades of green."

Gore's passion for the environment is genuine; even his critics agree on that. In an interview on the campaign trail, he bristled at the question of whether he has done everything he could for his favorite cause.

"You think I'm not passionately committed to this?" he demanded. "That's one of the main reasons I'm in this race."

Asked what issue he would do more on, he answered emphatically: "Well, global warming. . . . That's one of my missions. That's one of my missions." This time, his voice was neither ironic nor detached.

"And, you know, it's fair game for them to say, 'We didn't get everything and we're going to hold you responsible for that.' "

It is as if there are two Al Gores: Gore the eco-visionary, who worries about the polar icecap melting and wants to stop burning fossil fuels; and Gore the politician, who needs to win Michigan and cannot afford to be seen as an enemy of the automobile.

The solution is a third Al Gore: Gore the technologist, who finds solutions to environmental problems not in citizens' sacrifices but in the ingenuity of American invention.

In June, candidate Gore proposed an ambitious list of federal grants and tax incentives to stimulate the adoption of energy-saving technology, from tax credits of up to $6,000 for motorists who buy hybrid vehicles to bigger tax breaks for power utilities that reduce emissions--a potential $148 billion over 10 years.

He knows some of his political advisors don't think he should spend much campaign time on it. But his eyes light up when he talks about it: "A plan that actually does dramatically transform the way we use energy in America and the way we reduce pollution. . . . A way for U.S. business and labor to dominate the economy of the 21st century the way we dominated the economy of the 20th century."

"We've got the answer," he said. " . . . We can clean up pollution, make our power systems more efficient and more reliable, and move away from dependence on others--all with no new taxes, no new bureaucracies and no onerous regulations."

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