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Democrats Find a New Ally: The Green Goblin

South Dakota's Tim Johnson is widely considered the most endangered Senate Democrat. His generally liberal voting record is a tough sell in a conservative state that George W. Bush won easily in 2000. But Democrats and their interest-group allies think they've found a way to keep Johnson afloat: a big, green life preserver.

Sparsely populated South Dakota has been inundated with radio and TV commercials from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and the Sierra Club slamming Johnson's GOP challenger, Representative John R. Thune, for voting to delay tighter arsenic standards in drinking water. Because the water in 18 communities exceeds federal arsenic limits, the ads have put Bush's handpicked candidate on the defensive. Now, Thune is airing response ads saying that he, too, supports stricter arsenic standards.

Democrats are betting that the tactical success in South Dakota can be duplicated in enough states to help them maintain control of the Senate--and maybe even win back the House. Among GOP enviro vulnerabilities: Bush's support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, his efforts to delay stronger fuel economy standards, and a flap over his commitment to Superfund cleanup.

Given Bush's close ties to the energy industry, Democrats say green issues take on added saliency amid ongoing corporate scandals. "There's no question that the Achilles' heel of both the Republican Party and the President is the environment," says Democratic pollster Mark S. Mellman.

The issue is especially powerful because it appeals to swing voting blocs. A June 19-23 Pew Research Center survey found that independents and highly educated voters disapprove of Bush's environmental record. "The environment can be a sleeper issue," says pollster John Zogby. "To the degree [Democrats] can generate emotion and fear, it can be a very successful strategy." With Congress up for grabs, environmentally conscious voters hold the key to six Senate races, especially those in Oregon, New Hampshire, and Colorado, and at least 10 House contests, including ones in New Jersey, Michigan, California, and Arizona.

At-risk Republicans are scrambling to portray themselves as stewards of the outdoors. In Oregon, GOP Senator Gordon H. Smith boasts of his vote against Alaskan drilling, as his opponent, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, talks up his efforts to limit development along the state's pristine coastline. In Colorado, Republican Senator Wayne Allard, who launched his campaign from a Superfund site, points to his efforts to clean up plutonium from a nuclear-weapons plant in Rocky Flats. Dem rival Tom Strickland, a former prosecutor, touts his role in establishing Great Outdoors Colorado, which has funneled $260 million in lottery money to wildlife groups.

It's far from certain that the Democratic strategy will succeed. In Minnesota's tight Senate race, for example, a Green Party candidate threatens to tip the election to enviro-friendly Republican Norm Coleman by siphoning votes from incumbent and staunch green Paul D. Wellstone.

Still, enviro groups are spending record amounts trying to aid Democrats and a handful of pro-green Republicans. The Sierra Club is targeting 12 key races. And the LCV has budgeted $6 million for politics--nearly matching the $8 million it spent in the past three campaigns combined. With the election so tight, that kind of investment could go a long way. President Bush remains untainted by corporate scandals and by his refusal to release documents relating to his 2001 energy task force. But Dick Cheney appears to be taking heat. A June 14-17 Harris Poll showed the Veep's approval rating at 55%, 15 points behind the boss's. Harris Senior Vice-President David Krane says Cheney seems to be tainted by closed-door meetings with energy execs and his past role as CEO of Halliburton, which is under SEC investigation. That distant quacking you hear is Congress beginning to plan for a post-election lame-duck session. Lawmakers would like to start vacation in late July and are eager to hit the campaign trail in early October. But they have a long, difficult to-do list, topped by creation of a homeland security agency and post-Enron reforms. And Congress needs to complete 13 spending bills that will keep the government operating after Sept. 30. "We'll be here until Christmas," says one Hill veteran. With little fanfare, Bush has kept a long-delayed campaign promise to cut red tape for chip and computer exports. Under new rules, chipmakers won't need an export license to sell general-purpose microprocessors to China, India, and Pakistan. The regs also more than double the power of computers that can be sold to such countries without a license. Techies say restrictions--supported by the Pentagon and law enforcement--had them at a competitive disadvantage.

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