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Democrats Attack Bush in Forum on Environmental Issues

In UCLA event, five of the candidates for the party's 2004 nomination are urged to discuss their differences. Instead they focus on the president.

June 27, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak and Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writers

Five of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls took turns Thursday night assailing President Bush's environmental record and painting themselves in deep shades of green, as conservation issues briefly moved to the center of the 2004 campaign.

Ignoring an invitation to discuss their differences among themselves, the candidates instead focused their attacks on Bush, even when that meant ranging beyond the designated environmental theme of the 90-minute session in Los Angeles.

"On every single choice in front of this nation, there is a better choice than this administration is offering us," said Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. "With respect to health care, with respect to the environment, with respect to children, with respect to education, housing, infrastructure, our relationship with the world."

Environmental issues have not played much of a role so far in the presidential campaign, which is not surprising, given opinion polls that find conservation issues rank far behind such concerns as the economy, education and terrorism. The 90-minute session on the UCLA campus was an effort to change that.

The forum was sponsored by the League of Conservation Voters and its sister organization, the California League of Conservation Voters. All nine of the Democratic presidential hopefuls were invited. Among those who begged off were two with the organization's lowest ratings: North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. They cited scheduling conflicts, as did Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.

The five candidates who participated virtually ignored one another, despite the urging of the moderator, radio broadcaster Warren Olney, to explain the differences among themselves. Instead, they spoke in practically one voice as they called for expanded use of alternative fuels, stronger auto mileage standards, tougher enforcement of clean air and water regulations, and "environmental justice" to ease the blight of pollution in poor neighborhoods.

One after another, they criticized the president, accusing the Bush administration of substituting "ideology for thought" in its environmental policies, as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean put it.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut seized on charges that the White House bowed to energy industry pressure and deleted language on global climate change from an Environmental Protection Agency report on environmental conditions. "It is more typical of the old Soviet Union than the United States of America," Lieberman said.

Although several of the candidates criticized Bush for a failure of leadership on the environment, they balked when asked what sacrifices they might ask of the American people. Kerry -- who noted that he rode to the event in an electric car -- said he would ask the country to give up its "bad habits" and "selfishness" to boost energy self-sufficiency, but never elaborated. Instead, he and the others suggested that innovation and technology could help the country overcome its heavy reliance on foreign oil and other sources of pollution.

Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun spoke for several on the stage by suggesting the debate over jobs versus environmental protection was "a false choice."

One of the few points of disagreement came when Dean offered kind words for outgoing EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, a former fellow governor. "She tried to do her job," Dean said. "She left because the White House has told her what to do, and I think it's a disgrace." The Rev. Al Sharpton disagreed, drawing laughs by saying he worried she would move back to New Jersey and resume her political career.

The candidates were asked about the strength of the Green Party, which has drained support from Democrats and, by some analyses, cost Al Gore and Lieberman, his running mate, the White House in 2000.

Several of the candidates conceded that the Green Party had done a better job addressing the concerns of conservation-minded voters and said Democrats would have to find a more compelling way to frame the issue in 2004 if they hope to win those voters back.

At one point, Lieberman was asked whether he resented Ralph Nader, the Green Party's 2000 standard-bearer. "No ... he had a right to run," Lieberman replied. "But I think it created exactly the negative, destructive situation we predicted. We said a vote for Ralph Nader was a vote for George Bush."

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