As George Bush and John Kerry circle each other warily in the early days of the presidential campaign, focusing mainly on war and economic recovery, there's another issue that could make the key difference in a close race.
It's the environment. There are dramatic differences in tone and approach between the presumptive candidates here. As a result, the issue is more politically significant than it has been since former Interior Secretary James Watt's pyrotechnic presence early in the Reagan administration 20 years ago.
While the environment is seldom at the top of voters' concerns, it can significantly change the balance in a tight race - as Ralph Nader and the Green Party showed four years ago. And while national security and the economy are twin gorillas in the campaign, both sides know that environmental protection ranks high among American values from the grass roots on up - including among most Republicans, according to public opinion surveys.
In a confidential memo to elected Republican leaders last year, GOP pollster Frank Luntz warned that environmental issues are the Republicans' weak spot.As a result, wrote Mr. Luntz, "Not only do we risk losing the swing vote, but our suburban female base could abandon us as well." That Mr. Bush and Vice president Dick Cheney are both former oilmen does not help the administration's image here.
Much of Bush's first term has been spent trying to slow down efforts begun by former President Bill Clinton. The president also has emphasized energy production while deemphasizing international efforts to protect the environment and to conserve natural resources.
His administration also stresses "new environmentalism" based on incentives and market-based solutions. In several instances, he's sided with industry and much of the public's love of motorized recreation, snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park for instance, over moving toward a more pristine landscape.
For Senator Kerry, the environment has been a major issue throughout his years in politics, especially in the US Senate, where he chaired the oceans and environment subcommittee.
He's not hard-core about it. He favors oil drilling in some areas, just not in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He's pushed for stiffer fuel-efficiency standards for motor vehicles, but he welcomes some market-based solutions. He notes flaws in the Kyoto Protocol. But the League of Conservation Voters gives Kerry a 96 percent lifetime voting record on the environment, one of the highest in Congress. And his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is very involved in the environmental movement, giving large sums to green groups.
Among activists, there's no doubt who's the greener candidate. They point to what they say is a long list of industry representatives holding senior positions in the Agriculture and Interior Departments - the two federal agencies that oversee hundreds of millions of acres of public land. They note that Bush reversed a campaign pledge to regulate industrial carbon dioxide, pushed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, and favors a "Healthy Forest Initiative" that critics say is a giveaway to the timber industry in the name of wildfire prevention.
For his part, Bush says (in his reelection statements) that he "favors common-sense approaches to improving the environment while protecting the quality of American life." And he tends to take the long view.
"Three decades after the first Earth Day, our air is cleaner, our water is purer, and our lands and natural resources are better protected," the president declared on Earth Day last year. "My administration is building on these accomplishments through new and innovative policies. We will reduce power plant pollution by 70 percent. We will restore forest health, preventing catastrophic wildfires that devastate communities, wildlife habitat and the landscape. And we will promote energy efficiency and security, and improve and protect water quality, while encouraging economic growth."
Among other things, he's launched a $1.2 billion program to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cells to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, and he's more than doubled proposed spending to clean up and redevelop "brownfields" - contaminated industrial sites. Many environmentalists praised the regulations he ordered to reduce pollution from diesel engines.
But to critics - including some prominent Republicans - "protecting the quality of American life" and "encouraging economic growth" translates into things such as increased logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and resisting efforts improve that gas mileage of SUVs.
Last November, 14 states filed suit to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from weakening key provisions of the Clean Air Act. The proposal to relax standards outraged environmentalists, of course. But it also worries many environment-conscious Republicans.
"Can anybody remember a time when so many states - led by both Republican and Democrat governors and representing a large percentage of the population of this country - struck out in unison against actions of the federal government?" asks an editorial in the latest edition of "The Green Elephant," the quarterly publication of REP America, a national organization of pro-environment Republicans.
If he's elected, Mr. Kerry promises to "significantly reduce sulfur, nitrogen, carbon and mercury emissions ... protect our national parks and wild lands for future generations ... establish America as a leader the international effort to protect the global environment, including the development of a binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a global plan to protect our oceans ... and create thousands of good jobs developing clean energy and environmental technologies and infrastructure."
So there are clear and important differences between the two men, as well as issues of public perception which Democrats no doubt will try to exploit.