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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Two years ago, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama were both big supporters of a so-called cap and trade program. The goal: to cut global warming pollution. A bill passed the House, but it went nowhere in the Senate.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports now on just how unpopular the idea has become in this election season.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: West Virginia's Democratic governor Joe Manchin is running for Senate, and he wants to be sure that people in his state understand what he thinks about the climate bill. A televised ad shows him loading a rifle.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Governor JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, West Virginia; Senatorial Candidate): And I'll take dead aim...

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Gov. MANCHIN: ...at the cap and trade bill...

(Soundbite of rifle reloading)

Gov. MANCHIN: ...because it's bad for West Virginia.

SHOGREN: Other Democrats are running ads declaring they're against cap and trade because it will raise energy prices and hurt their states' economies. And Republican ads attack Democrats for supporting the policy.

But none of those commercials is quite as memorable as Manchin's.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONATHAN COLLEGIO (Communications Director, American Crossroads): Pulling out a firearm and shooting it through a piece of legislation is kind of a degree of drama that I've not seen in a campaign ad previously.

SHOGREN: Jonathan Collegio represents American Crossroads, a conservative political action committee that's running its own anti-cap and trade ads. One targets Robin Carnahan, a Democrat who's trying to win a Missouri Senate seat.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman: Why would Carnahan support an Obama cap and trade bill? Vast new energy taxes that could cost families $2,200 a year more and cost Missouri 32,000 jobs.

SHOGREN: Collegio says Republicans have successfully rebranded cap and trade as a tax on energy.

Mr. COLLEGIO: That's not going to be something that resonates very well with the average American voter, especially folks in a state like Missouri where the economy is not very well, and you're talking about raising energy bills.

SHOGREN: But Yale University professor Anthony Leiserowitz was astounded to hear the legislation so frequently vilified. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Leiserowitz is a research scientist and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change.]

Dr. ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ (Director, Yale Project on Climate Change): Who would have ever guessed that cap and trade or that climate change would become one of the defining issues that people would use in a political campaign? It's quite remarkable.

SHOGREN: That's because his polling shows that most Americans don't even know what cap and trade is. Despite this, Leiserowitz says it's become a litmus test, especially for conservatives.

Dr. LEISEROWITZ: And not just cap and trade, but now even questioning the existence of climate change itself.

SHOGREN: Manchin's opponent in West Virginia, John Raese, is one of a long list of Republicans denying global warming. Here's what he said in a recent debate.

Mr. JOHN RAESE (Republican, West Virginia, Senatorial Candidate): But when you look at the myth, and I say myth that there is global warming and then the other myth that man causes that global warming, I think that really differentiates me from other candidates because I don't believe in that myth.

SHOGREN: Some Democrats are standing up for action on climate and trying to expose their opponents as members of a flat earth society.

David Cicilline tried that in a debate with Republican John Loughlin. They're running for a Rhode Island House seat.

Mr. DAVID CICILLINE (Democratic Congressional Candidate, Rhode Island): And we can't have a real discussion about it if you don't believe in it.

Mr. JOHN LOUGHLIN (Republican Congressional Candidate, Rhode Island): It's not something you believe in. It's not like the Easter bunny, man.

Mr. CICILLINE: No, it's science. It's science.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOUGHLIN: And the scientific consensus is not there.

SHOGREN: There is one place where slashing global warming pollution remains popular. Polls predict voters in California will reject a ballot proposition that would have stalled the state's version of cap and trade.

But overall, the issue is playing negatively. And Republican pollster Frank Luntz says it's clear why it's doing so much worse than it did in 2008.

Mr. FRANK LUNTZ (Republican Pollster): What has changed is the economy went to hell. And when you ask voters are they more concerned about destroying their environment over the next hundred years or rehabilitating their economy over the next 100 weeks, they'll choose the economy over the environment any day.

SHOGREN: But Democratic pollsters and environmental activists say the climate bill is only one of many victims of Republicans' successful strategy to say no to President Obama's policies.

Sierra Club Political Director Cathy Duvall says whatever the reason, the result is undeniable.

Ms. CATHY DUVALL (Political Director, Sierra Club): The time for a comprehensive climate bill has come and gone, at least in the short term.

SHOGREN: Even President Obama concedes this. He says he'll keep pushing forward his climate agenda in what he calls bite-sized pieces.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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