Bush Hits Great Outdoorsby David Postman, Seattle Times chief political reporter
Most everyone agrees that the economy and the fate of military operations overseas will be the strongest influences on President Bush's re-election prospects.
But as Bush arrives in the state tomorrow for his first visit as president, it's also clear the environment is key to attracting suburban and moderate voters who three years ago kept him from success in the Northwest.
Bush will spend today in Oregon and tomorrow in Washington. He hopes to raise millions in campaign money at fund-raisers in the region's big cities and upscale suburbs.
But he can raise money anywhere. What the Northwest provides Bush this week are scenic backdrops of forests and rivers as he touts his conservation policies, hoping to counter growing charges from critics that he has sided with oil, gas and mining industries on key environmental issues. "He has a very keen and sensitive attachment to environmental issues," said Marc Racicot, the former Republican governor of Montana who is serving as Bush's re-election campaign chairman.
But Racicot knows Republicans have remedial work to do to convince voters. "I don't think we did as good a job as a national party in the past articulating our elevated concern about the environment," he said. "I think quite frankly this is a different president with a different understanding and different intuition about the environment."
Bush will try to show that today at stops in the forests outside Bend, Ore., and tomorrow at a Snake River dam in Eastern Washington.
Bush campaign officials said Washington is a key state for the president's re-election.
Yet this will be his first visit to the state since the 2000 campaign. After this week, there will be just six states left that have not received presidential visits.
And a Republican presidential candidate hasn't won the state in more than 20 years, since Ronald Reagan.
But Bush apparently ran well enough in 2000 to convince advisers he can win the state next year. He gathered 46 percent of the vote in 2000, compared with Democratic Vice President Al Gore's 50 percent. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader got 4 percent.
It was much closer in Oregon. Bush finished just a few thousand votes behind Gore, with each polling about 47 percent.
Frank Greer, a veteran Democratic political consultant who was close to President Clinton, said Bush has the "worst environmental record of any president in recent history." His firm is working for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a Democratic presidential candidate.
"With the things people in Washington state care about, this is not a friendly territory for George Bush," Greer said. "He'll be able to raise money, but he will not win here."
Bush forces had expected to do better here in 2000.
Jim Keough, a Bellevue GOP consultant, said late polls in the 2000 campaign showed Bush winning the state. But in the final days, heavy negative advertising against the Republicans went unanswered because the state party said there was no money available.
Keough said those mistakes won't happen again because of close coordination between the state party and the Bush campaign. The state party's list of voters identified as Republicans is also in the hands of the Bush campaign as it is modernized and integrated into a national database the president's re-election team can rely on.
But more coordination might not be enough if the economy doesn't improve or if U.S. casualties mount in Iraq.
The economy is a particular concern in the Northwest, where Washington and Oregon have been trading the No. 1 spot for highest unemployment in the nation.
That might argue for a presidential visit that focuses on the economy.
But Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, chairwoman of Bush's campaign in the state, said the campaign wants to focus on his environmental stance so that debate won't be dominated by Democrats and environmentalists.
"It's important for him to get out the truth on what his administration has done," Dunn said.
But Bush is not trying to convert environmentalists. Rather, he is speaking to moderate, swing voters, particularly those in the suburbs, said Chris Vance, chairman of the state Republican Party. While he said that the environment is not the top issue most local voters are concerned about, it is a strong second-tier issue for many people.
"Westerners, and particularly people in Puget Sound, all consider themselves environmentalists, and they're just not going to support a candidate who would wantonly throw that away," Vance said.
To combat criticism of his environmental policies, Bush in recent days has appeared at a forest in Arizona and the mountains outside Los Angeles. "I don't think he went to Santa Monica to convince the people of California that he's an environmentalist," said Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs with the National Parks and Conservation Association, a parks watchdog group. "He's trying to persuade the rest of the American public that he did have some strong environmental programs, and that he's delivered. But he doesn't, and he hasn't.
"Healthy Forests, Clear Skies, 'restore and renew the national parks': It's rhetoric."
Those programs are the center of Bush's environmental record so far.
The Healthy Forests Initiative is what Bush calls his plan to allow more cutting in forests as a way to reduce forest fires. Clear Skies is a market-based system to attempt to reduce air pollution from power plants.
"They name their assaults just the opposite of what they really are," said Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
"The way they name their programs, if they're going to a salmon hatchery, watch out salmon. Man, they're in trouble."
Trippi said Bush has been successful in appearing as moderate on the environment because Democrats have not been aggressive enough in attacking his programs.
Environmentalists, who are well-organized in the Northwest, will make sure Bush does not go unchallenged this week.
"MR. PRESIDENT: You are in Washington to fundraise, but we the people are paying the price," reads a headline on a newspaper ad the Sierra Club is paying to run in regional papers.
Protests are planned in each of the cities Bush will visit.
The stop at a remote dam in Eastern Washington will put him at the center of one of the most contentious Northwest environmental debates.
Bush will tour the Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River east of Pasco. It's one of four dams on the river that environmentalists have pushed to tear down to protect endangered salmon.
Bush visited Eastern Washington during the 2000 campaign to pledge his support for protecting the dams.
Many expect he will repeat that message during this visit, touting some of the strongest salmon runs seen in Western rivers in recent years as a sign that dams aren't harming fish.
"It looks like he's going to be here to claim credit for the number of salmon that have been returning, though it seems credit is actually due to ocean conditions," said Patti Goldman, an attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle. "I think he must think that with one speech, he can dispel two years of his record on salmon."
She complained that officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service have said improved coho numbers in Oregon are a sign the administration should consider removing them from protection under the Endangered Species Act. But environmentalists, including Goldman, said a few good years of salmon runs don't mean the long-term outlook is healthy.
Goldman has battled the administration on several lawsuits over the Northwest Forest Plan and salmon habitat. In each case, industry representatives have taken federal regulations to court, but the administration has declined to defend them, instead agreeing to make regulatory changes. Vance, the state Republican chairman, said he's thrilled Bush will appear at the dam. He said that backdrop will refocus the environmental debate where it should be.
"There's no one thing more important in Washington state than the dams," Vance said. He said the dams are responsible for the state's agriculture industry, cheap industrial power, the aluminum industry, which is in turn essential to the aerospace industry.
"You tear down the dams, you tear down Washington state," he said. "Our state flag should be a picture of a dam."
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