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“I t's the environment, stupid.�

Let's face it, that's not a line likely to be heard this election cycle. Just as when James Carville made his now famous comment about the 1992 campaign, it's the economy that still leads the list of concerns most dear to voters. But it's not that Americans don't care about the environment. In a March 2003 Gallup poll, 61 percent of respondents said they were active in or sympathetic to the cause, while only 6 percent described themselves as unsympathetic.

Yet when it comes to Election Day, the environment consistently ranks low on the list of voters' top priorities. When asked to name their two most important issues, about 5 percent of Americans list the environment. In a nationwide Gallup poll conducted in September, voters were asked to describe how particular issues would influence their votes. Only one came behind the environment (“Policies toward gays and lesbians�). “I can't think of a single person who's gotten beat on the environment. I just can't,� says pollster Michael McKenna of Andres McKenna Research, a Washington, D.C., polling firm.

Still, green issues could play a decisive role in tight races. Even as unemployment and the war dominate the campaign, political strategists note that, with the split between red and blue states increasingly pronounced and with President Bush's approval ratings hovering above 50 percent, topics with the potential to drive voters to the polls could swing a state one way or another. “Anything that can move votes by the hundreds or the low thousands in some states can loom large,� says independent pollster John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International in Utica, N.Y.

For that reason, Bush opponents have begun focusing on the environment in the hopes of winning over critical voters in swing states. “It can be one of those issues that does make a difference to a key 10 percent of the vote,� says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Snell Perry & Associates, in Washington, D.C., adding, “It's a big issue for two groups of voters: independent suburban men, who are a big swing vote, and the soccer moms who are the target of compassionate conservatism.�

Voters trust Democrats significantly more than Republicans on green policies, surveys find. “What's interesting about the environment,� says Lake, “is it's one of the more believable attacks against George Bush because people do believe he's too tied to the oil industry, that he doesn't ever care about the environment.� A Zogby poll conducted in September for The Wilderness Society found that 53 percent of likely voters opposed drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with more than two-thirds of likely voters saying they saw the proposal as a payback for campaign contributions from the oil industry. The March Gallup poll revealed that 35 percent of Americans felt environmental protection policies were being weakened under the Bush administration, while only 9 percent felt they were growing in strength.

Republicans are keenly aware of the numbers. A political memo penned in 2002 by pollster Frank Luntz outlined ways for Republicans to talk about the environment without turning off voters. “The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general — and President Bush in particular — are most vulnerable,� the memo noted. That doesn't necessarily translate into trouble come November. “The environment has not been a traditional Republican strength,� says Gene Ulm, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va., “but I'll tell you that when people are concerned with jobs and terrorism, there's not much oxygen left over for quality of life issues.�

Democrats and environmental activists aren't discouraged. In the fall, they tried to stall Utah Governor Mike Leavitt's nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency to raise broader criticisms of the Bush administration's environmental policy. And a group of former Clinton officials, including former EPA chief Carol Browner, is working on an effort to take on Bush's environmental policies. Dubbing it Environment 2004, the team reportedly plans to spend $5 million to target voters in potentially critical states such as Florida, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Oregon. The League of Conservation Voters says it will focus its efforts similarly. Those states were all closely contested in 2000, with Bush's 7,200-ballot margin in New Hampshire being the widest. Bush lost Oregon by about 6,800 votes — less than 1 percentage point — and the final outcome in Florida, of course, was just 537 votes.

With those margins, Democrats hope the environment will play a large role. “It's an important issue for us because the election could be won or lost, if there are too many defections to the Green Party,� says Lake. Even Democrats concede that the environment won't be a top-line topic like the economy and the war in Iraq. Says Lake: “If the economy really rebounds, and people feel it, then obviously it will be hard to beat the president.� It's still the economy, stupid.

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