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Bush Looks to the Environment to Sway Swing Vote

The issue doesn't loom large, but it can help him in a close election, experts say.

August 21, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

CRAWFORD, Texas — National polls consistently find the environment ranked close to the bottom of most voters' priorities, far below the two heavyweight issues of national security and the economy.

All the same, President Bush is devoting nearly every public appearance this month to the topic. Last week, Bush shoveled dirt on a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. Today, he is to tour a forest in fire-prone central Oregon. On Friday, he will pay a visit to a salmon preservation program at a dam in Washington state.

As next year's campaign approaches, it may seem odd for the president to spend so much time on what opinion surveys suggest is a marginal concern for most voters; indeed, an Andres McKenna Research poll last month found that only 5% of respondents consider the environment their "most important" issue. But, in fact, the picturesque visits are part of a careful, two-part electoral strategy.

Republican and Democratic strategists say the electorate has become more polarized since Bush became president. As a result, the election could be decided by the small number of "swing" voters who generally see themselves as moderates.

So the first part of the strategy is to increase Bush's appeal to those all-important voters. If Democratic candidates manage to paint Bush as an extreme anti-environmentalist, moderates may balk at supporting him. "They are making an effort to make him less odious in the eyes of people who might not be members of Friends of the Earth but who have a citizen's regard for the environment," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "It's an effort to render less toxic an issue that could be troublesome for swing voters. And if the election turns out to be close, a single percentage point could be decisive -- as we saw in 2000."

Another sign Bush's environmental forays are aimed at swing voters is that the visits are to battleground states. Bush lost Oregon and Washington by narrow margins in 2000 -- in Oregon by less than 1 percentage point. Bush strategists are hoping for better results in 2004, even in California, which he lost by 11 percentage points.

Republican strategists acknowledge that Bush mishandled environmental issues early in his term, rescinding tougher standards for arsenic in drinking water (but then reinstating them after public outcry), reversing himself on a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, and pushing an energy plan that emphasized finding new sources of energy and de-emphasized conservation.

But they say the characterization of Bush as anti-environment is unfair. The president, aides say, favors balanced policies that take into account the environment and the need for jobs and economic growth. And they suggest that new technologies, such as hydrogen-powered cars, will eventually render debates over emissions and fuel standards obsolete.

"The administration got off to a shaky start on this issue so it makes sense [for Bush] to take the opportunity to discuss an issue that's important to key swing voters, such as suburbanites and those in the West," said Linda DiVall, a leading Republican pollster.

DiVall acknowledged that Republicans have trouble convincing the public that they care about the environment. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman called the issue the GOP's "Achilles' heel."

"It's probably the biggest advantage Democrats have over Republicans," Mellman said.

Bush's environmental strategy is also an attempt to reduce the mobilization of core segments of the Democratic vote -- in other words, to discourage them from going to the polls. Increasingly, Republicans and Democrats agree, elections are being decided by small groups of motivated voters.

If Bush can appear friendly toward the environment, some Democratic voters may be less motivated to go to the polls. That's one reason environmental groups are rallying early and hard in this campaign cycle.

"There is a lot of talk in the political community that it's critical to mobilize small, discrete segments of the electorate," said Mark Longabaugh, a senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters. Republicans "know how mobilized environmental voters are on these issues, and I think they are afraid of that."

Environmental groups complain that one way Bush is trying to disarm such voters is by using words that sound friendly to the environment to talk about policies that are pro-industry.

Take the program he plans to highlight in Oregon, the Healthy Forests Initiative. Bush says it will "thin" the forests so fires are less devastating. Environmentalists say it is a cover to open protected forests to loggers, who are unlikely to cut down only the brush and undergrowth that fuel forest fires and will use the policy to cut down large, even old-growth, trees.

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