TRUDY COXE, a petite young woman with a smile that belies her tough-as-nails attitude on environmental protection, is making her first bid for Congress here in the Ocean State's Second District. Running as a Republican, Ms. Coxe has years of grass-roots activism to qualify her as one of the most radical pro-environment GOP candidates in the nation.
``We are supposed to be constructive nuisances,'' Ms. Coxe shouted to a recent meeting of 1,000 anti-pollution activists here. ``If everybody loves us, we're doing something wrong. We must maintain an aggressive vigilance. We must retain our feistiness.''
Having an environmental tiger like Coxe on the ticket is important to GOP strategists; it symbolizes the party's broad new push to develop a winning position on the environment for elections this fall and beyond.
Working on a lobster boat plying the smoke-gray waters of Narragansett Bay, the state's crown jewel, Coxe left her lobster pots 16-years ago to whip up public support to block sewage and toxic waste from the bay. Her efforts as director of Save The Bay landed her in the news, giving her statewide recognition.
``Her kind of experience has a grass-roots excitement to it,'' says William Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Coxe will ``put us in touch with people we absolutely need to communicate with.''
Adopting a greener-than-thou approach, Republican strategists have scouted for blue-chip environmental candidates like Coxe. Mr. Reilly helped recruit Coxe, previously a fence-straddling independent. She knocked on his door looking for a job as New England's EPA chief, but Reilly suggested she run for Congress as a GOP candidate. The seat currently is held by Rep. Claudine Schneider (R), who is challenging Democratic incumbent Claiborne Pell for US Senate.
Republicans are gaining on the environment issue, long a Democratic strength, by working state to state with incumbents and challengers. The aims are to win votes from what pollsters describe as an Exxon Valdez-sensitized public, to buff off tarnish from the Reagan-Watt years, and put Democrats on the defensive.
``Democrats are trying hard to get out their message that they're better on the environment,'' says Reid Wilson, political director at the Sierra Club. ``They understand they're in jeopardy of losing to the Bush public relations strategy.''
Top Democrats concede Republicans have gained, but suggest all that glitters is not gold.
``Everybody knows environment is a Democratic issue,'' says Sen. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado. ``I don't think Democrats are complacent. I think the fact the Republicans are trying to take away our turf ... means people will have to discriminate between the real and the false.''
The League of Conservation Voters, which charts environmental votes in Congress, says Senate Democrats voted 70 percent for the environment in 1989 versus 32 percent for the GOP. In the House, Democrats beat Republicans 72 percent to 35 percent.
However suspicious environmentalists may be of GOP green-initiatives, some suggest the shift is for the better. While environment is still not a decisive issue in many races, it is the green backdrop of popular opinion against which Republicans and Democrats know they must blend.
``Suddenly the environment has become like Sotheby's,'' says Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund. ``Bush has set in motion a bidding process where the two parties are ... proving which candidate, which party, is the greenest.''
The message from Republican National Congressional Committee (RNCC) headquarters is that GOP candidates must grab the environmental high ground, especially in key states like California and Florida. This year's races will affect post-census redistricting and the balance of power in Congress for years to come.
``Yes, there is a [national environment] strategy,'' the EPA's Reilly says. ``If you talk to Lee Atwater or Newt Gingrich, they will tell you the environment is one of four or five issues on which the Republican Party must prevail if it is to distinguish itself and become the majority party.''
The RNCC's John Roberts concurs. ``Are we stressing the importance of the environment to candidates? The answer is - you bet.''
In Florida, Republican efforts to stay in step with environmental concerns are evident. But even in a state besieged by development, environment is overshadowed by issues like capital punishment.
A big reason is that Gov. Bob Martinez (R) has preempted Democratic attacks on the issue. He does not have a long or strong pro-environment record, analysts say. Yet his plan to buy $3.2 billion of ecologically sensitive land has neutralized the issue.
Martinez's moves represent ``a late conversion,'' says Walter Rosenbaum, a political science professor at the University of Florida at Gainsville. Martinez has positioned himself with ``limited initiatives, ... doing just enough to color himself green.''
In California, Sen. Pete Wilson, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, is not gaining on the environment issue, but has not lost ground either. Senator Wilson's record, including his stance against offshore oil drilling, has at least kept him in the race with environmentally strong Democratic opponents Dianne Feinstein and state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, says Sherry Berbitch Jeffe, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School's center for politics and policy.
``The Republican Party is in a fight for its political life in this state,'' Ms. Jeffe says. California's future governor will influence redistricting. ``It's why Republicans will circle the wagons and fight.''
At the center of the revitalized GOP green-consciousness is President Bush - the self-proclaimed environment president. Whether or not environmentalists think his clean-air plan is soft, or his EPA chief too weak, Bush has raised the stakes on the issue.
And it is attracting people like Coxe to the GOP, making its effort more genuine to many.
``The frustration I have when I look to Washington, is that there are very few environmentalists in Congress,'' Coxe says. ``If you have an environmental ethic, it drives how decisions get made. It's not a balance between economics and environment - it becomes, `What can this planet sustain?' That's the driving question.''