Over the course of the current presidential election campaign, President George Bush and his rival, Senator John Kerry, have focused largely on the issues of the war in Iraq and the U.S. economy. But if the election is as close as polls suggest it might be, the outcome could depend on other so-called "wedge" issues.
When voters consider the environmental records of George W. Bush and John Kerry, they will be looking at a wide range of issues, from clean air, clean water and toxic waste cleanup to protection of public lands, endangered species and climate change.
The League of Conservation Voters which rates elected members of Congress and the White House on their environmental records is busy this election season actively promoting a pro-environment agenda.
Early on in the campaign, the League endorsed John Kerry for what they say is his nearly perfect record in the Senate. League President Deb Callahan says using the same criteria, the group gave George W. Bush its lowest-ever rating.
"We have seen across the board, whether it is protecting ocean resources in fisheries or whether it's pesticide law or whether it is the clean air and clean water laws or other laws that protect the health and safety of our families, or whether it is public lands laws in protecting our national parks and forests, that the Bush administration has been under- funding and under-protecting these resources," Ms. Callahan said. "And, it has been very devastating, I think."
But over at the Bush-Cheney re-election committee, President Bush gets high marks on his environmental record from Mike Catanzaro the campaign's deputy director for energy and environment policy He says the key difference between the candidates has to do more with balance.
"When it comes to President Bush, his approach to the environment, he realizes that you can't have environmental progress without environmental growth," said Mike Catanzaro. "Those two things go hand-in-hand. And, so when he looks at drafting clean policies, he realizes that the air will improve only if the economy improves. We have seen that. The empirical evidence shows that over the last 30 years our economy has grown something like 170 percent and we have cut the six criteria pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act almost in half."
Critics charge that the Bush administration has allowed power plants to pollute more by postponing the installation of expensive pollution controls. They say the Bush plan for healthy forests gives logging companies greater access to land.
League of Conservation Voters head Deb Callahan says Bush policy rollbacks and rules have supplanted decades of environmental initiatives. She says John Kerry offers a more sensible alternative.
"He believes that we should have stronger rules to tighten up our own clean air law both in the area of classic air pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur oxides as well as more strictly regulating mercury pollution and looking also at regulating the fourth pollutant, carbon dioxide, which leads to global climate change," she said. "The Bush administration doesn't even recognize carbon dioxide as a pollutant and therefore don't recognize that we should regulate it."
Mike Catanzaro with the Bush-Cheney campaign says facts and statistics tell a much different story.
"Just last week the EPA put out its clean air statistics," he said. "What do they show? [They show] that between 2000 and 2003 the air has gotten cleaner. Pollution has declined. They continually say that President Bush has allowed polluters to pollute more. That's just not true. The facts don't show that. Let's look at the lands policy that this president has put forward. When we came into office we laid out a goal of no net loss of wetlands. On Earth Day we got statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture which say that we have reversed the net loss of wetlands on our farms. In fact in 2002 he signed a farm bill which includes $40 billion in conservation funding over the next 10 years."
Both candidates say the nation must rely on less foreign oil, although their approach to energy independence is radically different. Mr. Bush supports drilling for oil and gas on public lands. Mr. Kerry has consistently voted against such actions in the U.S. Senate.
On global warming, the president favors voluntary over mandatory restrictions for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Mr. Kerry is an advocate of the United Nations-sponsored Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty that calls for mandatory industrial emission curbs on developed countries. Shortly after coming into office, Mr. Bush withdrew U.S. support from the agreement.
Both campaigns agree that the election revolves around a handful of battleground states. Deb Callahan says the environment could prove to be an issue that could tip the election scales in Kerry's favor.
"When Kerry is in Oregon he talks about salmon protection," said Deb Callahan. "When he is in Florida he talks about off shore oil drilling. When he is in New Mexico he talks about not drilling for oil in the Otero Mesa, a beautiful area of southern New Mexico. When he is in Nevada he talks about a nuclear waste repository that he thinks shouldn't be sited in Nevada and so individual state journalists will cover that particular issue."
The League of Conservation Voters has invested $6 million to get out the Kerry vote in five key states. Harvard University public opinion expert Robert Blendon says the strategy could change the tide of the election.
"I like to call them the two percent voters, two percent of the people who might actually vote for a candidate if they thought the candidate were committed to their issue and the environment turns out to be one of those smaller issues," said Robert Blendon. "This group concerned about the environment could shift and turn out at a greater rate if they really felt one of the candidates really cared about it."
Professor Blendon says this would be a likely scenario only if both candidates are engaged in a very tight race. He says it is still too early to tell whether the environment will end up playing that decisive role.