Environment Takes a Back Seat in Elections

In the run-up to the November elections, Republican and Democrats alike have been vocal on environmental issues, particularly clean energy. But problems with Iraq, the economy and the war on terrorism have crowded out the environment, say some pollsters.

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In the run-up to the election, Iraq, the economy and political corruption in Washington have overshadowed any discussion about the environment. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren tries to find out why so few candidates are addressing the issue.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Patricia Madrid is a Democrat running for Congress in New Mexico. She's the state's attorney general, and she's been very active on environmental issues. She sued the federal government to block oil drilling in the state, force action on climate change, and stop logging in national forests. But as she tries to unseat Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson, environmental issues have hardly come up. Heather Brewer is Madrid's press secretary.

Ms. HEATHER BREWER (Press Secretary for Patricia Madrid): The differences between the two candidates on the environment could not be stronger, but because of other issues that are really in the forefront of people's minds, the environment has just not been a central focus of the debate so far.

SHOGREN: The situation is the same in many other races around the country. Andrew Kohut is a pollster who heads the Pew Research Center.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Pew Research Center): There's a very crowded agenda for the public and for voters this year. I mean, clearly Iraq is the mega-issue. There's the economy and gasoline prices and the argument about terrorism. And these issues are just overwhelming everything else.

SHOGREN: That's not to say that candidates have been silent on environmental issues. Many candidates, Democrats and Republicans, are running ads talking about their commitment to clean energy. Here's Jon Tester, the Democrat who wants to replace Montana's Republican senator, Conrad Burns. Tester's the head of the state senate. He's touting his efforts there to promote alternative energy.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. JON TESTER (Democrat Senatorial Candidate, Montana): And while Washington has been focused on partisan politics and helping out the lobbyists and special interests, in Montana we've been working on real solutions like wind, bio-diesel and ethanol.

SHOGREN: Now, Tester doesn't say the word environment in his ad, but Democratic pollster Mark Mellman says voters get the message.

Mr. MARK MELLMAN (Democratic Pollster): When candidates are talking about alternative energy, what voters are hearing is a solution that helps deal with our national security problems, that helps deal with our environmental problems, and that helps create jobs.

SHOGREN: Some Republican incumbents who are in tough races have also been talking up their environmental credentials. Here's an ad for Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: Lincoln Chafee, the lone Republican vote against the war in Iraq, the deciding vote to protect clean air standards.

SHOGREN: Deb Callahan, the former head of the League of Conservation Voters, says he's not alone.

Ms. DEB CALLAHAN (Former President, League of Conservation Voters): Many moderate Republicans who are fighting for their political lives out there, trying to separate themselves from this Bush administration, aggressively use their environmental records as a way to try and define themselves to independents and Democrats who are really trying to measure, well, you know, what kind of Republican are you?

SHOGREN: One Republican who's using the environment to define himself is California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. As the election season was heating up, he signed a bill making California the first state to commit to sweeping cuts in the emissions that cause climate change.

Mr. JOHN PODESTA (Former Chief of Staff for President Clinton): And it completely changed the dynamic, I think, in his race.

SHOGREN: John Podesta was President Clinton's chief of staff. Now he's president of the think tank the Center for American Progress.

Mr. PODESTA: He was moving back to the center on a number of issues, but I think that was really a game-changing issue for him.

SHOGREN: But Schwarzenegger appears to be an exception this year. For most candidates, environmental issues won't make the difference. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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