Climate change may have lost its status as a top-tier political issue in the past year, but the demise of cap and trade last Congress won't render it a non-issue for Republican presidential primary voters, GOP observers and strategists said last week -- especially when so many candidates have a climate "past."
"The issue itself is not a particularly important issue to people," said Michael McKenna, a GOP strategist and energy lobbyist. "It is a surrogate, a totem for how you feel about large government versus small government, or general willingness to accept the perceived wisdom of the mainstream for a whole bunch of things."
McKenna and others say that to a greater or lesser extent, several of the Republican presidential candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring for 2012 could see their conservative credentials tarnished by past support for legislation that would cap greenhouse gas emissions.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said last week that GOP candidates appear to hold that view, also.
"With the research they're doing, there has to be a reason they're all backing away from it," said Inhofe, who is perhaps the Senate's most vocal opponent of restraints on carbon dioxide. "They don't think they can get elected or get the nomination. I'm inclined to think they're right."
If past advocacy for action on climate change is a political liability for a Republican wishing to take on President Obama next year, it is one shared by a broad swath of the 2012 GOP field.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former governors Jon Huntsman of Utah, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts have all championed carbon cap-and-trade schemes in some form in the past, as did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who recently announced that he would not run.
But conservative observers differ on how widespread the wrath of the voters will be on this issue, and who will feel it the most.
Marc Morano, a former aide to Inhofe, said climate would not really be an issue in the Republican nomination fight, because no candidate would raise the issue voluntarily. But primary candidates with a pure record of climate skepticism might raise it to capitalize on their opponents' past support of cap and trade, he said.
Still, he said belief in the science of climate change would not necessarily sink a candidacy.
"You can believe in the science of global warming if you're a GOP presidential contender if you keep your mouth shut about it and you advocate no quote-unquote solution to the problem," said Morano, who now maintains the skeptic website Climate Depot.
Morano said most Republican candidates would probably survive their climate pasts, with the exception of Gingrich, who has not backed away from a 2008 ad he made with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on behalf of Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection.
In the ad, Gingrich said, "We do agree, our country must take action to address climate change." The ad does not mention mandatory measures to curb emissions, though the former speaker has voiced support for a cap-and-trade scheme on other occasions. He has not supported any cap-and-trade bill yet considered by Congress, however.
Morano called the 30-second spot "toxic" to Gingrich's presidential hopes.
"He's acknowledging the problem. He's accepting the science. He hasn't backed away from endorsing Al Gore's approach to man-made global warming. That's why he's going to have a problem," Morano said, adding that Gingrich's flirtation with climate regulation would prove more damaging to his chances than questions about his private life.
"Newt Gingrich was not just giving aid and comfort to the opposition. He was the opposition to the global warming skeptics," he said.
David Jenkins, vice president for government and political affairs at Republicans for Environmental Protection, noted that Gingrich never backed up his pro-climate action rhetoric by finding an emissions reduction plan he could support.
"I'm very amazed that some of the folks are targeting Gingrich on this, because even though he tries to state the fact that climate change is happening, I haven't ever found a solution to the problem that he's been in favor of," Jenkins said. "For anyone to be worried that he's going to actually do something proactive on climate seems to be a bit of hand-wringing for nothing."
Some 'splaining to do
McKenna said Gingrich, Huntsman and Pawlenty could all have difficulty explaining their climate record to a conservative primary electorate energized by the tea party movement.
"The three candidates who are most at risk here are most at risk because they start off pretty significantly to the left of the electorate," he said. "They already start off in a ditch. Their past dalliances with cap and trade sort of confirm what the electorate already suspects -- that these guys are not really one of us."
Like Gingrich, Huntsman, has not disavowed a belief in man-made climate change. In a Time magazine interview published last week, the former Utah governor said he still believes that the science of climate change is settled.
"All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring," he said. "If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we'd listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it's better left to the science community -- though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors."
Huntsman went on to say that he does not believe cap and trade is appropriate to address the problem given the current state of the economy, but McKenna called that a "mangled half-answer." He noted that it left room for Huntsman to support cap and trade again when the economy improves.
McKenna said he preferred Pawlenty's strategy of issuing an unsolicited apology for ever having supported cap and trade in the first place.
"He's in the best shape," McKenna said. "The other two aren't going to be able to survive this I don't think. I mean, it's pretty bad."
Christopher Horner of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute said that even candidates who had not jumped on the cap-and-trade bandwagon -- or who had jumped back off -- could be in trouble for their support of "green jobs" initiatives, such as carbon capture and storage technology and renewable energy.
Another potential Republican contender, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, has support for green technologies "clinging to his shoe," said Horner, pointing to a May 2009 column in The Wall Street Journal in which Daniels panned cap and trade as he touted his state's biofuels, wind and CCS development.
Horner said the governor was "succumbing to the instinct for the old 'Message: I care' approach."
A different view
Jenkins, meanwhile, said the conventional wisdom that Republican primary voters are averse to any mandatory carbon policy is untrue and has been manufactured by a few communications professionals and interest groups that want to maintain the status quo.
"How much power do you give a few people over what is in the best interest of the country?" he asked.
Jenkins pointed to a voter survey taken last spring, before the rollout of a Senate climate change bill. The survey conducted by Bellwether Research & Consulting, a polling firm, asked the question; "Do you favor or oppose a national energy policy that will expand domestic energy production while setting industry limits, or caps, on carbon dioxide emissions?"
One-hundred-and-eight Republican respondents said they favored that combined approach while 75 said they opposed it.
Jenkins noted that Arizona Sen. John McCain gained the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 despite being savaged by right-wing commentators for having sponsored carbon dioxide cap and trade bills in three different Congresses.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's former adviser on energy and president of the American Action Fund, said his ex-boss' work on climate change did not help him in 2008.
"I don't think his cap-and-trade views bought him a single vote," he said, adding that even in the general election environmental votes flocked to Democrat Barack Obama, who made climate change an election issue.
But Jenkins said that if GOP candidates run away from climate change en masse in the next few years, the party may have cause to regret it in years to come when the pendulum of public opinion swings back to concern over the issue.
"For those in our party who block efforts to address climate change, whether it is for political reasons or because they reject established climate science, the odds are great that they will find themselves on the wrong side of history," Jenkins said. "And it will most certainly damage the GOP brand -- especially among younger voters who will be left to deal with the mess."