In 2000, the Democrats picked a presidential nominee passionate about greenhouse gases, climate change and global energy policy.
But Al Gore also coveted the political center and so, in the view even of some of his supporters, he bit his tongue about his most heartfelt values, on the way to losing the presidency to George W. Bush.
Four years later, Sen. John Kerry has resolved to talk about the environment, but in a new way. He plans to steer clear of extended discourses on global warming and endangered species. Instead, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee is trying to connect with voters by talking about what his staff calls the "kitchen table" issues: mercury-tainted cans of tuna appearing in family cupboards; air pollution worsening; asthma for thousands of children and new gas wells pockmarking Western grasslands, leaving hunting grounds scarce of elk and pronghorn.
Aiding him in attempting to unseat President Bush will be an unusually organized and energized environmental community. Stereotyped by some as chanting, placard-waving zealots, environmentalists this year say they will attack Bush with a carefully targeted, multilayered campaign. Concentrating on a handful of swing states, they will take aim mainly at moderates, who aren't typically part of their core constituency.
"Five years ago if you had asked the top 20 environmental leaders what the gravest threat to the environment was, they would have given a whole range of answers," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the onetime attorney general and a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Today, they would be united in saying it's George W. Bush."
Republicans in the past have mainly tried to play defense on environmental issues, burdened by the long-held perception that they favor business over the environment. But Bush in recent weeks has aggressively stepped up his environmental profile -- proposing to expand, rather than merely preserve, endangered wetlands and to curtail harmful emissions from farm equipment and off-road diesel engines.
"The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general -- and President Bush in particular -- are most vulnerable," Republican pollster Frank Luntz said in a memo last year.
Seeking the Nader votes
The Democratic focus on the environment is designed not just to combat Bush directly. The party also wants to stem the appeal of independent candidate Ralph Nader to eco-minded voters.
Kerry's boosters argue that he can effectively cut off such "green flight." They note his fight against Bush's push for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and his 92 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters, which gave an F to the president -- in 34 years, its first failing mark.
Plan of attack
Some of the nation's largest environmental organizations say that in their efforts to help Kerry, they will eschew scattershot approaches of the past to reach voters in a more rigorous and personal way.
The League of Conservation Voters has formed a coalition with Defenders of Wildlife and Friends of the Earth that will target just four states: Florida, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin. All were closely contested in 2000 and are likely to be competitive again this year.
The coalition, named the Environmental Victory Project, has decided it can get more bang for its $6 million investment by deluging a few swing precincts in those states rather than financing television ads and mailers across the nation, said Mark Longabaugh, the League of Conservation Voters' senior vice president for political affairs.
"In Florida, we can't run a $20 million television campaign," Longabaugh said. "But by being very smart and precise . . . we are trying to move 200,000 voters. . . . And that could decide the election.".