The presidential primary contests came thundering to a halt this week and, on the Republican side, the environment appears to have played a major role in helping George W. Bush beat back John McCain.

The height of the GOP battle was marked by bitter acrimony over a television ad paid for by Bush supporters that criticized McCain’s environmental record and praised Bush’s.

First reports of the ad, which ran on the pricey airwaves of New York and California as well as in Ohio, began trickling in last Wednesday, as alert environmentalists in those states notified political operatives in Washington, who in turn notified members of the media (including Muckraker).

It took most of the big media an extra day to register the significance of this independent ad buy (estimated at $2.1 million) and follow its tracks back to the aptly-named Sam Wyly, a wealthy Dallas investor and major Bush backer, who created the shadow group Republicans for Clean Air, which officially sponsored the ads.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Bush campaign, of course, swore up and down that they had nothing to do with sly Wyly and his ad, and there is no way to prove direct coordination occurred, short of eliciting an admission from a Bush staffer, which, needless to say, isn’t likely to happen.

The McCain camp, for its part, went ballistic for days, hammering away at Bush’s “sleazy” friends spending “funny money” on a “bogus” attack. Bogus or not, it worked.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Shortly after the ads lauding Bush’s efforts to reduce air pollution in Texas and accusing McCain of voting against solar and renewable energy hit the airwaves, Bush’s numbers in New York began to trend up. The Bush campaign also ran an ad accusing McCain of opposing money for breast cancer research, which may have held down McCain’s numbers in the New York City area, a region he needed to dominate to offset Bush’s upstate advantage.

Even McCain himself acknowledged the impact the environmental and breast cancer spots had in the days leading up to Super Tuesday. “It was those ads,” a rueful McCain said Tuesday night as exit polls began to forecast his demise, according to Jake Tapper of Salon.

Needless to say, enviros of all stripes were furious about the spots. Many were barely able to form coherent sentences as they foamed at the mouth, scoffing at the portrayal of Bush — supporter of voluntary emissions standards for Texas industrial plants and governor of the state with America’s smoggiest city — as Mr. Green Jeans. The outraged press releases and demands for removal of the ads flew fast and furious.

It didn’t turn out to be all bad news for green groups, however. The Sierra Club basically got a free ride for several days, as the McCain campaign aired a response radio ad statewide in New York, Ohio, and California that said in part: “The Sierra Club said it best, quote, ‘Praising George Bush on clean air is like thanking John Rocker for his contribution to civil rights.'”

A gleeful Dan Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club, pointed out that McCain seemed to be embracing his organization’s assessment of Bush even though the group has been equally critical of McCain on a number of issues. “He [spent] his own money to carry our criticism of Governor Bush,” Weiss said happily earlier this week.

Vice President Gore, who scored a clean kill of Bill Bradley Tuesday night, is not likely to let the image of Bush as friend of the environment set in. The Gore campaign has made it clear that at least in the early stages of the fall campaign, and probably throughout, they will attempt to paint Bush as out of the mainstream on a triumvirate of issues: abortion, gun control, and the environment. They are three topics we should all get used to hearing a lot about over the next eight months.

News Flash: People Like Planet, Prefer Clean Water

Speaking of being out of step with the mainstream, the League of Conservation Voters planned to release a poll this morning that apparently shows, once again, that going green wins votes (although it might not mean raking in the green from contributors).

The LCV poll of 1,000 registered voters nationwide found that “78 percent of voters polled support a candidate who is a strong environmentalist over a candidate who supports efforts to relieve the burden of regulation on business.” And more than half of the survey respondents said they were more likely to support a candidate “who will enforce strict clean water laws.”

That’s nice to know. But it doesn’t speak to the larger question: How much do people really care?

Chances are if you ask somebody whether they prefer a candidate who would protect clean air and clean water, they are going to say yes. Who would oppose those things? Are there really people out there who enjoy dirty air and filthy water?

The question is, are people willing to give a pass to a less-than-green candidate who says things they agree with about job creation, education, and tax cuts? That’s where the numbers often begin to trend away from enviros.

In any case, LCV cancelled a planned news conference to release the report. The cited reason was that the departure of Bill Bradley (and the imminent departure of John McCain) from the presidential sweepstakes was likely to eclipse the news that Americans oppose smog and like clean drinking water.

Meanwhile, Down the Ballot

The presidential wannabes weren’t the only ones picking up votes on Tuesday. Voters in California and Ohio also chose candidates, and one scourge of the green movement (as well as hair stylists the world over) managed to survive.

Nice ‘do, Jimmy. (Check out Jimbo’s homepage.)

In Ohio, Rep. Jim Traficant (D), who has racked up an impressive number of anti-environmental votes, was targeted for extinction by the aforementioned League of Conservation Voters. The LCV stuck Traficant on its Dirty Dozen list of anti-enviro legislators last week and paid for radio and TV spots in his Youngstown district urging Democratic voters to back primary challenger state Sen. Bob Hagan.

But the enigmatic Traficant survived, at least in part because the opposition vote was split among three candidates (who together got 50 percent). The battle may not be lost, however, as Traficant remains under grand jury investigation on corruption charges.

In other races, nine-term California Rep. Matthew Martinez (D) was unceremoniously trounced in the primary in his East Los Angeles district by state Sen. Hilda Solis, who had been endorsed the California Democratic Party. Martinez had a bad rep among Capitol Hill reporters and was viewed by many in his district as woefully out of touch.

In other California races, Rep. Tom Campbell easily won the GOP nod to take on Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but most observers think Feinstein is in strong position for re-election this fall, although she is often mentioned as a possible running mate for Gore.

Californians also passed a pair of initiatives to spend $4 billion to expand state parks and improve the quality of drinking water in the state.

Stay Tuned

With the entertaining presidential primaries behind us, it’s time to take a long hard look at the rest of the races for House and Senate in what promises to be a terrific battle for control of the 107th Congress. We will take a leisurely tour through the key races next week.