Environmental issues have rarely played a starring role in presidential politics. But some hope this campaign will be different. Already, the issue is moving to the front burner among would-be leaders in the U.S. presidential race.
A week ago, Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut debuted a TV ad for viewers in Iowa and New Hampshire touting his plan to promote alternative energy and curb greenhouse gases. The League of Conservation Voters praised the ad — which features children singing "We've got the whole world in our hands" — as the first-ever by a presidential candidate to focus on global warming.
It wasn't the last, though. Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico unveiled his own ad a few days later, touting his record as a promoter of clean energy.
Tracking Candidates' Views
"Candidates who are out talking to the public all the time understand that this is an issue that the public wants to hear about," says Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.
The group has created a special Web site, www.heatison.org, to keep track of the candidates' views on global warming and to keep the heat on the issue through November of next year.
"We want to create a competition, so that candidates in both parties are competing for who's got the best plan," Karpinski says.
The Web site has been updated a half-dozen times in the last month alone, as candidates' positions have evolved. All of the Democrats have endorsed a cap on greenhouse gases, and many have gone on record in support of higher fuel-economy standards. Dodd wants cars to get 50 miles to the gallon within 10 years. He has also proposed a tax on companies that spew carbon, saying that would encourage alternative fuels.
"I think it's very little to ask here to put a tax on polluting emissions that would allow these alternative ideas to be competitive with them economically," Dodd said in an interview with Fox News.
A Growing Consensus
Historically, environmental issues have taken a back seat in national elections, but that may be changing. Some voters are drawn to the issue indirectly, out of concern over imported oil from the Middle East. California's eco-voters have newfound muscle, thanks to their state's early primary next year. And already in New Hampshire, voters have called for action on climate change in more than 160 town meetings.
Pollster John Zogby says there is a growing consensus that global warming must be addressed, not only among liberals and young voters who were first to embrace the issue, but increasingly, among evangelicals and mainstream Wal-Mart shoppers.
"This time the issue is for real," Zogby says. "The question mark only becomes: Does one party select a candidate who doesn't buy the issue? And so far, that doesn't look to be likely."
Zogby says in last year's midterm elections, even the existence of global warming was a "wedge" that divided Democrats and Republicans. But not anymore. President Bush acknowledged the problem in this year's State of the Union speech. And former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani did the same in Wednesday's New Hampshire debate.
"I think we have to accept the view that scientists have that there is global warming, and that human operation, human condition contributes to that," Giuliani said.
Few Republicans have outlined plans to address the problem, though, except for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was a lead author of a bill to cut greenhouse gases.
"The overwhelming evidence is that greenhouse gases are contributing to the warming of our Earth. And we have an obligation to take action to fix it," McCain says in a video on his campaign Web site.
The profile of the issue could get even higher if former Vice President Al Gore enters the race for the Democratic nomination. But even without the Inconvenient Truth candidate, it appears that the political climate has already begun to change.