One of the headlines in the Des Moines Register’s “Life” section on Saturday read: “Muckraker Comes to Town.”

Well, they got the headline right, anyway. The story referred to filmmaker Michael Moore, not this reporter, who is also in town following the presidential candidates around as they madly scour Iowa in search of votes in the state’s caucuses, the first actual voting of 2000. We’ve been keeping a special eye turned toward the role environmental issues are playing in the campaign.

By far the most visible presence here in this frigid, snow-covered state has been that of Ozone Action. The group staged a press conference Thursday at the Des Moines Marriott and has made its presence felt at just about all the major events, planting signs, inflating their giant, withered ear of corn, and chanting their “What’s your plan?” mantra.

The fun began a week ago at the final Democratic debate here when 23-year-old Kim DeFeo, a field worker for Ozone Action, busted in on the festivities and said, “I want to know what you’re going to do about global warming.” Secret Service agents yanked DeFeo out of the high school auditorium and neither candidate addressed her question, though VP Al Gore later said she had a good point but was making it in “the wrong way.”

It was a similar scene Friday night on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames when a group of Ozone Action activists began chanting during a Gore rally that featured Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) and Education Secretary Richard Riley.

Gore, to his credit, didn’t miss a beat, breaking up a windy and aimless speech that had the media groaning in the back of the crowded student union to directly address the protestors by taking credit for personally lifting the issue of global warming to national prominence.

Gore said one his top priorities as president would be to curb global warming and ratify the Kyoto Protocol. “A few years ago,” he said, “that would not have been the response you would have gotten to that question.”

The student demonstrators were not satisfied and began to chant again later and to raise their red “What’s your plan?” banner. Agents quickly moved in. Muckraker was poised, camera at the ready, to witness an act of brutality if the agents violently tore the sign out of the demonstrators’ hands. Instead, a mostly polite conversation ensued and the banner disappeared for the remainder of the event.

Overall, Gore has been the far more vigorous campaigner of the two Democrats in Iowa, even if his rallies have tended toward the unfocused and rambling. At one point during the Ames event, one prominent television commentator was overheard asking, “Do you think he had a stroke?” Gore even appeared to be running against Thomas Jefferson, saying that if the founding father had been such a great guy, he would have freed his slaves. No one was quite sure how effective an anti-Jefferson crusade could be.

Gore did manage one enviro event last week, appearing with activist Robert Kennedy, Jr., in a gathering that drew little media attention because it was added very late to the VP’s schedule.

Gore also aired a radio ad featuring Kennedy saying:

And I can tell you there is no leader in America more committed to a safe environment than Al Gore. For the last six years, Al Gore has led the battle against the big shots who would dismantle America’s environmental laws. … He stood up to them on offshore drilling … And fought to preserve the statutes that guarantee American’s clean air and water … that protect our endangered species and wetlands … and safeguard our communities from hazardous chemicals. Whether the issue is land conservation or global warming, Al Gore has been on the forefront.

Meanwhile, Gore’s Democratic rival, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, suffered through one of the most brutal campaign weeks in recent memory. As his poll numbers began to slide and reporters began to question his strategy of competing here at all (he in fact has spent more time and money in the state than Gore), Bradley had to explain that he had had several recent recurrences of the atrial fibrillation that forced him off the campaign trail late last year.

The media gorged itself on the health story for two crucial days at the end of last week as Bradley was trying to get his footing back. Bradley did not help himself, however, by trying out a riff at several events in which he would condemn the caucuses for having a tradition of “rewarding entrenched power” while at the same time courting Iowans for their votes. It was a losing tactic and the campaign quickly dropped it.

Not a great deal of enviro talk has come out of Bradley on the Iowa stump, except of course on his newfound fealty to ethanol subsidies and regular references in every stump speech to his desire to “protect the natural environment.”

Bradley was not heckled as much by the Ozone Action crowd, however, lending some credence to the theory that younger enviro activists are more enamored of his campaign than that of the sitting vice president whom many feel has not done enough after seven years in the Clinton administration.

Bradley did get a piece of good news when Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), often thought of as the administration’s point person on Western environmental issues, endorsed Bradley over Gore. Kitzhaber is reportedly less then pleased with the administration’s work on saving Northwest salmon.

Scuttlebutt on the ground here is that Bradley’s campaign may be doomed if he is beaten badly and then loses in New Hampshire. But he has enough money in the bank to continue campaigning through the March 7 primary extravaganza, which features contests in California and New York where the former New York Knick believes he can fare very well.

It hasn’t been a happy-go-lucky Bradley these last few days in the Hawkeye State, though, and one gets the sense that he can’t wait to close the books on this dismal chapter of his campaign and regroup for a big ambush in New Hampshire later this week. Muckraker will be on the scene there as well to chronicle the action for you.

Muckraker spent Sunday flying around the state with publisher Steve Forbes, who is looking to come out of Iowa with a solid second place finish and emerge as the conservative alternative to Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Forbes spoke to increasingly large and boisterous crowds as he swept across the state with stops in Ames, Waterloo, and Dubuque. While not a regular part of his stump speech, Forbes does like to mention the “bad science” underlining theories about global warming and criticize the onerous impact environmental regulations have on business.

In our ongoing effort to understand the electorate, Muckraker interviewed voters at every Forbes event to find out just exactly what it was that motivated Iowans to support this oddly robotic millionaire with no experience in elective office. Voters most often said it was for that very reason, that he is not a politician and not beholden to special interests, that they were supporting Forbes. Others said how much they liked the flat tax. Few mentioned Forbes’s newfound zeal on social issues like abortion as the number one reason they were supporting him.

Voters for whom those sorts of issues are paramount are more likely to be in the camps of Gary Bauer or Alan Keyes, who spent their time in Iowa hammering away on the abortion issue to the exclusion of almost everything else (although Bauer also likes to talk a lot about China policy).

Bush was in coast mode for much of the week, looking to stay away from pesky reporters’ questions as he exhorted Iowans to actually get out and vote for him, not just tell pollsters they support him. Bush’s one real news conference turned into a disaster as ornery reporters peppered him with questions on abort
ion and judicial appointments, attempting to get him to explain what exactly he meant when he said he would appoint only “strict constructionists” to the bench. Bush’s answer: “I’m not a lawyer” and therefore cannot give any examples of a strict constructionist’s ruling.

Away from the campaign trail, National Journal last week in its report on Washington salaries listed the top-paid execs in the enviro world and found them to be far less flush than other lobbyists, think tank leaders, and special interest group honchos.

Topping the green list was Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund who clocked in at $237,405.

A sampling of other salaries:

Rodger Schlickeisen, Defenders of Wildlife: $154,885
William H. Meadows, Wilderness Society: $142,298
Carl Pope, Sierra Club: $126,203
Kristen Engberg, Greenpeace: $50,769