Muckraker: Grist on PoliticsVisiting the Everglades has become de rigueur for presidential candidates hoping to shore up environmental cred in Florida, the nation’s most populous swing state. But Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s trip to the wetlands on Friday seemed to generate only bad publicity.

Last year McCain opposed legislation that included funding for Everglades restoration and urged colleagues to let Bush’s veto of the bill stand. And last week he didn’t do a particularly good job of responding to criticism of his vote.

The funding in question is a $2 billion set-aside for the Everglades that was included in the $23 billion Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that Congress passed last year, and then passed again over Bush’s veto. McCain said he would support a “stand-alone” bill for Everglades restoration, but he considered WRDA an example of the “pork-barrel” expenditures he has campaigned against.

“I am committed to saving the Everglades,” he told a group of the state’s newspaper editors gathered at Disney World last week. But he added that he “will not vote for out-of-control spending.”

Though many environmentalists hailed the veto override as a win, by other accounts WRDA was a lard-packed waste of money. Right after the bill was passed, reporter Michael Grunwald wrote at length here on Gristmill about the reasons it was a bad bill –- and why Bush was right to veto it, even if he might have been right for some of the wrong reasons. Grunwald argues that WRDA won’t save the Everglades because it preserves a dysfunctional approach to water resources administrated by the equally dysfunctional Army Corps of Engineers.

Barack Obama’s national campaign co-chair, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), also voted against the bill, saying on the Senate floor that she opposed it because of the way it allocates funds, and because she wanted to see greater transparency in the Army Corps of Engineers.

So yes, it’s entirely plausible that McCain had principled reasons to oppose the bill. The real problem for McCain is that he’s done a lousy job of defending his position — among other things, calling the legislation an omnibus appropriations bill when in fact it was a narrower water-projects bill.

The two presidential campaigns have been trading jabs over the issue. Obama campaign spokesperson Hari Sevugan issued this statement: “When it’s clear you don’t even know what you’re objecting to, it’s simply unbelievable to claim that your objection was based on principle. John McCain has not only demonstrated his complete lack of understanding of the issue, but has also made clear that his support for President Bush’s veto of critical funding for the Everglades had much more to do with partisan politics than principle.”

On Friday, both campaigns held press calls on the issue. The Obama campaign put forward former Florida Sen. Bob Graham (D), who said that the Everglades restoration project, which is supposed to be a partnership between the federal government and the state, is already seven years behind because Congress didn’t pass legislation to invest in it. “This delay has had some serious problems at the state level,” said Graham. “One of the biggest threats to the Everglades is that if the marriage of the federal government and the state were to be broken, the project would collapse.”

The McCain camp fought back with its own presser, putting out Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who represents the Everglades area, to defend the candidate. Diaz-Balart called the allegations “outright distortion,” and maintained that McCain’s opposition to the funding was part of his crusade against earmarks. “It just doesn’t hold water — pun intended,” he said of criticism of McCain. Diaz-Balart, it should be noted, voted in favor of the bill, as did the entirety of the Florida congressional delegation.

The takeaway from an environmental perspective should be that while funding for Everglades restoration is sorely needed, not everyone is in agreement that WRDA and the Army Corps are the best tools for getting the job done.