The environment — oh-so-neglected for much of the presidential campaign (as we noted in past columns) — has bubbled up to the top of the issue mix in recent days.

While the Republican battle royale between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain still steals most of the ink and gets the lion’s share of airtime on the evening news, the Democrats have ratcheted up their battle for the hearts and minds of environmentalists.

Things started heating up when former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley tore into Vice President Al Gore‘s environmental record during a speech in San Francisco on Feb. 14, essentially accusing the veep of being more interested in photo ops than policy changes. “To be a custodian of our natural world means more than paddling a kayak for the TV cameras,” Bradley said.

The environmental attack kicked off several days of digs by Bradley attempting to portray Gore as out of step with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and harboring deep roots in Dixiecrat conservatism. Beyond the environment, Bradley hammered Gore for his record of anti-abortion votes in Congress and for statements made in support of Gore in the past by officials of the National Rifle Association.

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The Bradley attacks, which aides privately say will continue through the March 7 primaries, came to a head in New York City on Tuesday during a televised debate at the Apollo Theatre when Bradley summed up his case for Gore as a Republican in Democratic clothing.

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Gore essentially remained above the fray during the first week of the sustained Bradley attack, settling for handing out point-by-point rebuttals to reporters covering Bradley.

The vice president, however, has been shoring up support among liberal groups (the National Abortion Rights Action League on abortion, the Human Rights Campaign on gay rights), and yesterday he went to Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to reinforce his image as the true environmentalist in the presidential campaign.

Gore picked up an endorsement from the New York League of Conservation Voters and praise from Republican environmentalist Lawrence Rockefeller. He also began airing a television ad in New York from perhaps his most powerful enviro ally, attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

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“He’s gone toe-to-toe with the big shots on Capitol Hill who’ve been trying to dismantle the laws that protect our air and our water and endangered species and public lands,” Kennedy says in the ad. “If you care about the future of America, there is no more important choice that you can make this year than to support Al Gore for president.”

The Bradley forces were having none of it. Friends of the Earth, which endorsed Bradley months ago, quickly circulated an article from the American Prospect featuring an earlier Kennedy quote criticizing Gore and the Clinton administration for supporting a plan by the Mills Corp. to build a shopping mall on 500 acres of wetlands in New Jersey’s Meadowlands. Friends of the Earth also pointed out that members of the Mills family have given $43,000 to Gore’s campaign.

Does it matter? Most environmentalists, even those sympathetic to the Bradley campaign, think that the former senator doesn’t have much of a chance at this point to take out Gore. Bradley is trailing in the polls in all of the major March 7 primary states from California to New York.

Bradley has staked his campaign on the Feb. 29 Washington state primary, a beauty contest that will send no delegates to the Democratic convention (the delegates will be selected during the March 7 caucuses). The Bradley camp thinks a Washington win would once again propel him onto the front page and recharge a seemingly moribund campaign. It is a strategy somewhat reminiscent of McCain’s in New Hampshire, but many observers believe it’s too little, too late. And, even if Bradley should win the beauty contest, many think he will be buried under the news of whatever happens between McCain and Bush in Washington the same day in a contest that actually counts.

Bradley essentially has had the role of reformer taken away from him by McCain, who continues to draw record numbers of independents and Democrats to his insurgent campaign. As one environmentalist from a prominent organization said, “There’s only room for one maverick in this campaign.”

Going After the GOP

Gore used his Dobbs Ferry event to trot out a new riff attacking both Bush and McCain on their environmental records.

“I want you to remember two numbers: zero and one,” Gore said. “There are two candidates on the Republican side. And one of them, in the last League of Conservation Voters ratings two years ago, came in with a rating of zero. Zero. The other is a governor under whose leadership his state has become No. 1 in pollution of air, pollution of the water, and pollution of the land. Zero and one.”

Gore’s attack on Bush’s record came as the Sierra Club began airing a new ad in California criticizing the governor, similar to ones that have run in previous primary states. The Sierra Club spot cites a recent Time magazine piece criticizing Bush for Texas’s “world-class pollution problem.”

The Los Angeles Times also jumped into the game today with a lengthy front-page story on Bush’s poor environmental record in Texas, explaining how oil refineries in Houston are “10 to 20 years behind Los Angeles-area refineries in controlling their pollution.”

But what about McCain? Should it become clear that he is going to get the Republican nomination, will the Sierra Club take aim at him? Chances are good. The group already ran ads in Arizona criticizing the senator for opposing new national monument designations by the Clinton administration. The ads generated “literally hundreds of calls a day” to the McCain campaign, says club spokesperson Allen Mattison, an indication that the attacks on McCain’s environmental record may have traction with the public.

Chips on Gore’s Shoulder?

It appears that the chip mill issue we wrote about last month may begin to heat up over the next few weeks.

Muckraker hears that at least two major television networks are preparing to air segments dealing with the issue of the mills, which create woodchips for export and for domestic use as particle board, rayon, and other products. Few laws exist to discourage large timber companies from clear-cutting forests in the Southeast and replacing them with genetically modified redwoods that can be quickly grown and harvested and fed to the noisy mills.

The segments are likely to include comments critical of Gore for not taking a stronger stand on the issue by supporting federal regulation of the mills. They will probably air around the time of the major March 7 primaries and prior to the March 14 primaries in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas.

Trevor Fitzgibbon, who is working on the issue for the Southeast Forest Project, said the effort to bring attention to chip mills is not intended to damage Gore. “We are not trying to sandbag him,” Fitzgibbon said. “We just think this is a no-brainer.”