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CAMPAIGN 2000

Gore's Environmental Roots Finally Take Hold of Mainstream

Issues: Ralph Nader still attracts the most ardent activists, but the Democratic nominee has solidified support as voter concern for the planet increases.

September 03, 2000|JACK NELSON | CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

WASHINGTON — Mainstream environmentalists are putting aside earlier concerns and lining up strongly behind Al Gore's presidential candidacy, turning away from Green Party candidate Ralph Nader to back the Democratic ticket.

"The initial disappointments the environmental community had with the Clinton-Gore administration have faded, and there is an almost total coalescing behind Gore," says Kristin Hyde-Block, a spokeswoman for Environmental Media Services, which disseminates information on environmental issues.

If that trend continues, it will mean another segment of the traditional Democratic base is firming up for Gore, whose support among normally Democratic voters lagged throughout most of the year. And it might prove especially important in some closely contested states across the industrial heartland of the mid-Atlantic and Middle West, regions that are politically crucial to both Gore and his Republican rival, George W. Bush.

In the past, environmental issues have ranked relatively low on the list of voter concerns in such states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. But a recent poll of voters in this region for FreedomChannel.com, a nonpartisan Web site, showed that, while pocketbook areas such as health care still lead the list, the environment now ranks among the top five issues of greatest concern.

Other polls show that the issue occupies a similar position in the minds of California voters, who are considered among the most environmentally conscious in the country.

Nationwide, fears among Gore supporters that Nader might siphon significant numbers of environmentalist votes from the vice president seem to have faded considerably. "There is a vocal, small minority, pro-Nader voter on the far-left side, ideologically driven, who wants the glass totally full and is not persuadable," says Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. "But the more classic Democratic voter [is] coming home to Gore."

Even Nader concedes that most environmentalists are now rallying around Gore. While insisting the "real gut fighters" of the movement still support him, Nader says other environmentalists are "looking at Bush as Genghis Khan and holding their nose and supporting Gore."

To be sure, Nader continues to pose a serious threat to Gore in some areas, especially the Pacific Northwest. Last month, Nader supporters astonished even their own candidate by turning out 10,000-strong for him at a rally in Portland, Ore.--one of the largest crowds for any presidential candidate this year.

"Wow, whew, what a rousing Oregon welcome," declared Nader, who, reserving his harshest criticism for Gore, went on to call him a "political coward" who speaks with a "forked tongue" in vowing to battle special interests.

Nader cites the recently formed "Environmentalists Against Gore," as a sign of continuing support for him in the movement. Former Rep. Dan Hamburg (D-Ukiah), a spokesman for the group of 120 environmentalists, called Bush's record "scary" but said Nader should be supported even at the risk of electing the Texas governor. "It might bring the Democratic Party back to a progressive stance," he said.

But leaders of mainstream environmental groups insist Nader's support is eroding except among uncompromising environmentalists. Even in New Mexico, where strong showings by Green Party candidates routinely have hindered Democratic congressional contenders in recent years, most environmentalists are aligning themselves with Gore, analysts familiar with the state said.

Gore's selection of Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate has helped galvanize support for the Democrats, especially when the Connecticut senator's voting record on environmental issues is compared to that of Dick Cheney, Bush's running mate. The League of Conservation Voters gives Lieberman a 95% pro-environment voting record for his Senate career; Cheney, a former House member from Wyoming, received a 13% rating.

The Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, two of the nation's leading environmental groups, already have endorsed Gore.

A smaller group, Friends of the Earth, which endorsed former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey in the Democratic primaries, will decide on an endorsement within the next two weeks. Brent Blackwelder, the group's president, said: "There's a Grand Canyon of difference between Gore and Bush on the environment," and he pointed out that Lieberman was given a Friends of the Earth award a decade ago.

Many environmental groups are prohibited from publicly endorsing candidates because of their tax-exempt status.

Part of the disillusionment with Gore that slowed the embrace of him by many environmentalists sprang from their high hopes upon his election as vice president in 1992. He had recently written "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit," which promoted an assertive environmentalist agenda.

But with the Clinton administration focused on improving the nation's economy, environmental issues took a back seat. And Gore's support for free trade agreements put him at odds with environmentalists who have wanted such accords to include tough anti-pollution requirements.

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