In a tight race the environment could swing undecideds.
As George Bush and John Kerry circle each other warily in the early days of the presidential campaign, focusing mainly on war and economic recovery, there's another issue that could make the key difference in a close race.
It's the environment. There are dramatic differences in tone and approach between the presumptive candidates here. As a result, the issue is more politically significant than it has been since former Interior Secretary James Watt's pyrotechnic presence early in the Reagan administration 20 years ago.
While the environment is seldom at the top of voters' concerns, it can significantly change the balance in a tight race - as Ralph Nader and the Green Party showed four years ago. And while national security and the economy are twin gorillas in the campaign, both sides know that environmental protection ranks high among American values from the grass roots on up - including among most Republicans, according to public opinion surveys.
In a confidential memo to elected Republican leaders last year, GOP pollster Frank Luntz warned that environmental issues are the Republicans' weak spot.As a result, wrote Mr. Luntz, "Not only do we risk losing the swing vote, but our suburban female base could abandon us as well." That Mr. Bush and Vice president Dick Cheney are both former oilmen does not help the administration's image here.
Much of Bush's first term has been spent trying to slow down efforts begun by former President Bill Clinton. The president also has emphasized energy production while deemphasizing international efforts to protect the environment and to conserve natural resources.
His administration also stresses "new environmentalism" based on incentives and market-based solutions. In several instances, he's sided with industry and much of the public's love of motorized recreation, snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park for instance, over moving toward a more pristine landscape.