When it comes to the environment, neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush is quite the extremist each makes the other out to be.
Governor Bush, the king of toxics in Texas?
By many measures, perhaps yes, but recently he has been sounding surprisingly green: He's pushing a plan to speed the cleanup of "brownfields" - contaminated, abandoned industrial sites, and he supports a moratorium on offshore drilling in California and Florida.
And what about Vice President Gore, who the Republicans deride as a tree-hugging radical?
Interestingly, the League of Conservation Voters gives his environmental voting record a modest 64 out of a possible 100 points. And Friends of the Earth has not yet endorsed Gore because of his lack of action on the environment. They point out that America's greenhouse-gas emissions, which contribute to global warming, are up 13 percent since 1990.
"It's not like one is a white knight and the other has horns," says Martha Marks, president of Republicans for Environmental Protection.
Yet even though the two candidates are not as extreme in practice as they appear in campaign rhetoric, major differences do exist between them on environmental issues - and the result could redound to Gore's advantage with swing voters.
As Ms. Marks admits, "Bush is pretty bad" on the issue. That could be a crucial point in Gore's favor if the race in November is as tight as it is now, say political analysts and pollsters.
A swinging issue
The reason is that the environment is an important issue to swing voters - in fact, to most voters. Over the years, it has moved from being a fringe issue to a mainstream one, with majorities in both parties favoring varying degrees of federal intervention and regulation of environmental matters - the antithesis of Bush's more free-market approach.
"The environment could give Gore the edge in a tight race," says independent pollster John Zogby.
That is the hope of the Gore campaign, which expects to get further mileage on the issue with the rerelease tomorrow, Earth Day, of the vice president's bestseller, "Earth in the Balance."
In a new forward to the book, Gore dares critics to call him "too environmental." Ten years ago, when he was working on his treatise, evidence about global warming was just starting to accumulate.
But since then, numerous studies have supported the idea that the phenomenon is man-made and dangerous.
"While no single weather event of the kind we have seen so far can be cited with certainty as the smoking gun of climate change, the rapid temperature changes of recent decades and the succession of erratic killer storms fit the pattern that climate scientists expect in a warming world," he writes.
In a postscript to the forward, the vice president makes it easy for his critics by directing them right to the pages that call for eliminating the internal combustion engine. "I'm proud that I wrote those words in 1992, and I reaffirm them today," he writes.
In fact, research shows many Americans think Gore's idea is a good one, if unrealistic, and automakers are already investing heavily in engine alternatives.
Still, environmentalists are far from unanimous in their praise of Gore. Daniel Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club, sees "two big areas of disappointment." He says the vice president has yet to come up with a concrete plan for reducing US greenhouse gases, and he criticizes the administration for not making the environment an integral part of international trade agreements - though Gore has pledged to do this in the future.
On the campaign trail, Bill Bradley lit into Gore for supporting a federal dam in Tennessee that environmentalists opposed, and for reneging on a promise that he would stop an incinerator from being built in Ohio. It was not only approved, but built close to an elementary school.
Still, Mr. Weiss and others describe the vice president as the most knowledgeable presidential candidate on the environment ever, and strongly prefer him to Bush.
To intervene or not to intervene
One area that most defines the differences between the two candidates is their level of support for federal intervention. Gore strongly supports intervention; Bush shies away from it.
Gore, for example, fought for the Kyoto global-warming agreement. Bush opposes it. The agreement, not expected to be ratified by this Congress, calls on the US to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Gore also supports federal initiatives to preserve open space and combat sprawl. Bush supports the protection of private property rights.
But what's most damaging to Bush, says Weiss, is his record.
The Sierra Club ranks Texas first in toxic releases to the environment, and first in chemical accidents. Last year, Houston overtook Los Angeles as the smoggiest city in the country.
"By any measure, Texas is the most polluted state in America and Governor Bush has done little to change that," he says.
Bush has tried to deal with these problems largely through voluntary measures by industry, with only marginal results. And while the governor reminds voters that air quality has improved in Texas, environmentalists say that's only because of forced compliance under the federal Clean Air Act.
Even many Republicans are aware of Bush's vulnerabilities on the issue. Gore has "a good lead" on the environment issue, says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "It's one of the most lopsided issues."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society