Portland skylinePhoto: David GrantThis is part of a series of dispatches from Melinda Henneberger, who’s talking to voters around the U.S. about their views on the environment and the election.

Portland, Ore. — Oh, the indignity of tooling around environmentally aware Portland in a big-dog SUV, in between conversations about the environment. Even the guy at the rental-car counter was apologetic: “I know,” he said, when I gulped at the news that my economy car had been super-sized. “No one wants them, but we have to give them to somebody.”

Just as gay people grow up and move to San Francisco or New York, green people grow up and move here. Years before I began sorting bottles and cans on the other coast, my buddy who is a Kansan-turned-Oregonian was struggling to convey just how bad her new boss really was: “Melinda,” she finally told me, “he does not even recycle.”

My friend’s next-door neighbors are transplanted Texans, Linda d’Onofrio and Andrew Migliore, who as d’Onofrio says “came here for local produce and a forward way of thinking.” Even so, it took them a while to settle in with their chosen tribe: “I didn’t grow up around political correctness, and we had a hard time the first couple of years,” says d’Onofrio. “We’d say tasteless things about everybody’s race, religion, animals; we’d make kitty taco jokes” — not widely appreciated by “people who will stop you on the street and tell you what they think of your Hummer.” Now, though, this is home, and the whole moment is more subdued: “My sister’s a true Communist who goes around the world teaching micro-banking, my brother’s a true Fascist with his boots in the corner, and we used to have the best conversations, but all the fun has been sucked out of that. The conversation has stopped because it’s not funny anymore; you can’t make jokes about Abu Ghraib and melting ice caps.”

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One thing d’Onofrio and Migliore still don’t take too seriously is the idea that John McCain has any prayer of being elected president. “Unless they rig every machine in three or four states, no Republican is going to win,” says d’Onofrio, who is a speech pathologist. “I always had a soft spot for McCain,” offers Migliore, an entrepreneur with an engineering background. “The Republican Howard Dean!” his wife adds. But that was before he contradicted himself on torture and started weaving all over the road on global climate change: “He reverses himself every three or four days, on energy and everything else,” d’Onofrio says, “so my gut on him is he doesn’t even know his own policy.”

Somewhere in Portland, there must be people who are pulling for the presumptive Republican nominee. But in the 97212 zip code, where Obama yard signs bloom alongside drought-resistant native plants, McCain fans are keeping it on the down-low. (“Are the McCain signs even out yet?” my friend here wonders.)

Unlike 18-year-old Thomas Scharff, who still cannot believe his good fortune, getting to vote for Barack Obama in his very first electoral at bat: “I couldn’t ask for somebody who more inspires me, and there’s both an intellectual and an emotional aspect to it.”

While I’m thinking, “Whoa, this kid is so articulate, I guess organic food does make you smart,” Scharff is still speeding on down the road: “I’m impressed that McCain has moved away from Bush on cap-and-trade, but he’s sold out on offshore drilling, and Obama has stronger and more aggressive plans on global warming and could take moral leadership on the global stage instead of playing with gimmicks like the gas tax, and he’s willing to go after windfall profits.”

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Scharff was not among the record crowd of 75,000 who showed up for an Obama rally here in May. But he’d already heard the candidate speak at another local event in March, along with some friends from his school’s “con team,” which competes in demonstrating an understanding of the U.S. Constitution. “When Obama talked about restoring habeas corpus, we were jumping up and down,” he says.

Another neighbor, Jackie Ellenz, was first on the block to rip out her lawn and replace it with fireweed and chrysanthemums, which require less water. She has to admit she’s relieved when I ‘fess up that that’s my white SUV over there; she’d been suspecting it belonged to the girl dating my friend’s teenaged son. “I thought it might have been Luke’s little girlfriend’s,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Oh, I would hate to be Luke.'” Ellenz, who is a retired teacher, moved here from Wisconsin 20 years ago with her husband, Steve Snyder, and they, too, award McCain at least one star for outshining the current president. “I’d never vote for him and his proposals are weak, but it’s a hopeful sign that he’s not a global-warming denier,” Snyder says.

He and his wife also share a cautious, my-heart-has-been-broken-before attitude about their own candidate. “I’ll be curious to see how distant Obama can stay from oil and gas” lobbies, Ellenz says. Yet they do like that he seems to know he can’t accomplish anything without what Snyder calls “a movement underneath him” — to help figure out, for starters, how people who can’t afford solar panels and new insulation can become carbon neutral too. Because for all the pride they take in reusing baggies, Oregonians don’t want to live on a little green island. “We want to be the furthest behind,” Snyder says.

When I hit up members of the Thistles, a rec-league women’s soccer team, for their political opinions, there is more disagreement about how long they’ve been playing together (20-plus years, in any case) than about the presidential race. Not one Thistle is even considering voting for McCain. “I’m not sure Obama’s green policies are the strength of his vision,” says Andrea Karpinski, “but every ounce of his being is hearing people say we want something different.” And what I’m hearing people here say is that they’re also terribly curious about the particulars.

Charlie Stephens, a former Navy commander and energy consultant who is retired from Oregon’s Department of Energy, says he has yet to meet the politician brave enough to say this one, super-scary word: less. As in, we need to consume less, make less, and throw away less, lots less. Because even if we open our offshore areas to drilling, we’d burn through those reserves in about four years. Says Stephens, “My question is: Then what?”

Dave Chen, a venture capitalist whose firm invests in companies engaged in various areas of sustainability, has some thoughts about that. He never saw the current administration as an ally: “The Bush administration is not pro-business; it’s pro-friends. The most competitive industry in the world is high-tech,” the industry Chen comes out of. “We beat ourselves silly to give you more for less every year — better and more powerful and cheaper. If you were pro-business, you’d realize that America is in a knife fight with China and India. Instead, we haven’t even thought about our foundational competitiveness” against countries that would sacrifice almost anything to provide their young people with a better education.

“Instead, we’re chasing goblins and losing competitiveness” while failing to recognize that the future of the economy is in green jobs, Chen says. But both McCain and Obama, he feels, “are still formulating their policies, and neither has connected the dots or had an ‘a ha’ moment about why this is so core, why this is a mandate for the future. Change only happens when you embrace it emotionally, and you can’t fake that.”