Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) may have said it best at a rally Sunday afternoon in the postcard-perfect New Hampshire town of Peterborough.

Asked what he planned to do to improve the environment, McCain mused briefly about convening a panel of scientists to figure out once and for all whether global warming exists, and then he said, “You know, I think that might be one of the most important, and under-discussed, issues of this campaign.”

It was an understatement.

On both the Republican and Democratic sides, the environment has played a very limited role in campaign discourse and in street theater activism as the candidates gear up for tomorrow’s New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation.

Climate change has occasionally popped up as an issue and Ozone Action has had a presence here in New Hampshire as they did in Iowa (though their giant inflatable ear of corn is nowhere to be found).

But for the most part it’s been a green-free campaign, with Democrats arguing over health care and who went negative when and Republicans squabbling about who is the most zealous foe of abortion and the most ardent (and, in the case of McCain, prudent) tax cutter.

It’s not that it’s been an issue-free campaign. Quite the contrary. It’s often been dizzyingly issue-oriented. It’s just that the environment has rarely been among the issues.

The only truly environmental event of the New Hampshire primary campaign took place in Stratham one frosty morning last week when a group of local enviro activists gave the nod to former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. Bradley happily accepted the backing of the locals and expressed his fealty to the climate-change cause.

“When it comes to the environment, there is no greater threat than global warming,” Bradley told the shivering crowd. “That’s why the polar caps are melting and why sea levels are going up — and why there should be a sense of urgency.”

But, as with a recent event in Iowa featuring VP Al Gore and environmentalists, the Bradley endorsements generated minimal media attention, perhaps reflecting the fact that there is little current difference between the two Democrats on environmental issues and therefore little grist for good campaign stories. (Of course, there is also little difference between the two on the issue of abortion, yet the issue has emerged as a hot one this week, with Bradley choosing to highlight Gore’s early-career habit of voting against Medicaid-funded abortions.)

Timber Stands

So it’s been slim pickings for greenies looking to inject their issues into the campaign. The only groups that have had much success are those like U.S. PIRG that are working to limit logging, a hot topic in New Hampshire, home of the White Mountain National Forest. It’s an issue requiring maximum political finesse in this state where voters possess strong feelings on both sides: Enviros are looking to block road-building and logging industry workers are concerned about their livelihoods.

The issue came up in the final debate last Wednesday night here and Gore’s answer clearly indicated his sensitivity on the issue. Pres. Clinton last fall proposed a ban on road-building on millions of acres of national forest land, which would affect thousands of acres in the White Mountains. Among those upset by the announcement was New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), a Gore backer with a powerful political machine that the vice president is relying on to push him over the top.

Gore said in the debate: “We should respect and continue the process of local input to take into the account the unique circumstances in the White Mountain National Forest. And as we protect more wilderness areas, that same local input must and will be a part of the process.”

Not exactly the kind of response likely to put fire in the hearts of enviros.

Strange Sights on the Streets

GOP contender Steve Forbes has been spotted tooling around the state in a plush campaign bus with a sign on the back reading, “Powered by corn alcohol via HydroFire (TM). Controlled by computer via DriverMax (TM). More power. Better mileage. Less pollution.” Courtesy of Forbes’s pals at Mirenco, a company specializing in high-tech, low-polluting automotive technology, based in (where else?) Iowa. Could it be we’ve been overlooking the real environmental candidate?

As for creative street theater, we’ve seen “potheads for Gore” walking around with actual pots on their heads and a shark character stalking McCain and demanding that he support lower taxes. Aaron Villes of U.S. PIRG tells Muckraker that he has been following Bradley and Gore around with an inflatable Smokey the Bear prop. We haven’t actually run into the bear, but we are willing to take Aaron’s word for it.

We Now Return to Regularly Scheduled Muckraking

While chasing candidates and hanging out with the leading lights of the political universe here has generally been a blast (it’s not every day you can walk into the bar of your hotel and run into Tom Brokaw, Judy Woodruff, Ariana Huffington, Jack Germond, or any other media/political heavy you can think of), we will be back in Washington next week ready to receive and distribute all the hottest environmental gossip and news.