Video: Environment as 2004 issue?

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msnbc.com
updated 1/26/2004 9:04:22 AM ET 2004-01-26T14:04:22

If you're a Democratic presidential contender, you're going to have the same liberal environmental platform as your peers, right? Well, not quite, at least not in the 2004 race.

The Democrats are certainly united in criticizing President Bush in general terms, but look a little closer and you'll see differences. On the Kyoto global warming treaty, for example, Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Dennis Kucinich support it as is, while the others oppose the terms but want to return to the table after Bush withdrew the United States in 2001. On nuclear power, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Lieberman see a continued role given our energy needs.

The fact that each contender has unique traits -- guess which one is a vegan? -- and positions means that even within the world of environmental activists, there's no consensus on the best contender for their cause.

Lieberman and Sen. John Kerry, the leader of one national group told MSNBC.com on condition of anonymity, "are generally considered the darlings of the more politically oriented environmental groups. And they both can boast of an excellent and consistent record of leadership on the environment."

Kerry, for his part, also won the endorsement Saturday of the League of Conservation Voters -- the earliest backing of a contender in the group's 34-year history.

But Sen. John Edwards also has a strong record and should be getting more attention, the source said. "Edwards really stepped up to the plate and became the Senate leader of efforts to block" Bush administration moves giving power plants more flexibility in meeting pollution requirements. "He is a very impressive guy and has been underrated so far by the alleged pundits."

Dean, Clark question marks
As for Howard Dean, he gets mixed grades from his time as Vermont's governor.

"I think Dean would be fine also," the source said, "though he's not loved all that much by the Vermont environmentalists. As one Vermont state official put it to me once, 'you know, he's not really a liberal.'"

That feeling may come from Dean's fiscally conservative ways, balancing Vermont's budget in part by cutting back on government spending -- environmental agencies included. He was also seen as a bit lax enforcing clean water laws at times.

One staffer for a major environmental group acknowledges the potential weakness, but notes that Dean "really fired up the base of the party" with a grassroots campaign that used the Internet to network supporters.

Hoping others will "forgive him for any transgressions on the environment," the source said he himself was taking time off to campaign for Dean in New Hampshire. A few other colleagues, he noted, are doing the same for the Dean, Clark and Kerry campaigns.

Clark, for his part, has no political career to look at, having spent his adult life in the military. "Clark has floated some positive ideas," said the head of the environmental group, "but he doesn't have a track record. He also has a 'Dr. Strangelove' quality generally. Who knows what he'd do?"

That question could also be asked of the Rev. Al Sharpton, a long shot in the race whose platform is thin on environmental policy.

With Kucinich, on the other hand, the question is not what he'd do, but whether he's electable given what he'd do. The most liberal of the Democrats campaigning, he's vowed to "cancel" the NAFTA trade accord "on day one" because of environmental and labor concerns. And he's much more aggressive than his peers in moving to renewable energy, phasing out nuclear power and raising vehicle fuel-efficiency standards.

Green Party factor?
One environmental wildcard is the Green Party, whose candidate in 2000, Ralph Nader, was seen as taking votes from Democrat Al Gore.

This time it looks like some of the Democrats are trying to strike first.

"Some have done some outreach to Green Party members at local and state levels," said Green Party media coordinator Scott McLarty.

But he emphasized the party "will nominate a Green Party candidate, not a Democrat," when it convenes in June. "The party will not rescind its nomination or re-endorse later," he said.

McLarty said a "Redraft Nader effort" might surface, adding that Democrats shouldn't assume that they can eventually attract Green Party support. "Greens oppose Democrats as much as we do Republicans, and we seek to replace both in public office," he said. "We do not exist to help Democrats win."

"It's possible that a Green candidate would have an effect on the outcome of the election in November," McLarty added, "but it would be rash to predict what kind of effect that would be."

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