Cap and trade is back.
The controversial system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that was used potently against Democrats last year is being turned into ammunition against Republican candidates for president.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) repeatedly tore into former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty last night for his past support of a cap-and-trade program during an Iowa debate featuring eight Republicans seeking their party's nomination.
A surging tea party adherent, Bachmann accused the flagging Pawlenty, once considered a leading climate advocate, of pursuing policies identical to those of President Obama.
"When you were governor of Minnesota, you implemented cap and trade in our state, and you praised the unconstitutional individual [health] mandate, and ... you said the era of small government was over. That sounds a lot more like Barack Obama if you ask me."
Pawlenty, who helped lead a multi-state consortium toward a regional cap-and-trade program, accused Bachmann of misrepresenting his record on health care, taxes and climate policies.
"She has a record of misstatements," said Pawlenty, whose candidacy is perceived to be struggling from a "Minnesota nice" passivity.
Pawlenty is one of several Republican candidates who have retreated from previous positions acknowledging the science of climate change, and a need to address it. Others include former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R- Ga.) and former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman of Utah.
Two weeks ago, Huntsman told the moderate group Republicans for Environmental Protection that science should lead the discussion on climate change, though he no longer supports a cap-and-trade program. He was asked last night about his previous pursuit of a multi-state emission reduction accord.
Huntsman sidestepped a direct response, but said, "I am running on my record, and I'm proud to run on my record."
The sin of being "too reasonable"
That effort to avoid flip-flopping could save him from the criticism that plagued candidates in the past, including Romney in 2008. But his refusal to put distance between his moderate record and his primary campaign is raising questions about the resiliency of his candidacy.
Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution, is skeptical about the effectiveness of Huntsman's position on climate change during the Republican primary.
"It makes him appear entirely too reasonable and mainstream for the contemporary GOP," Mann said.
Frontrunner Romney was largely spared from attacks by his trailing opponents in the debate last night. He wasn't asked about his past support for a 10-state cap-and-trade program, which as governor he accepted. Romney later opposed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative before it was implemented.
He suffered in his last presidential campaign for changing his position on several issues. This year, Romney is staying focused on his established principles, including his belief that climate change is occurring. But he had questions about the extent.
"We've been very focused and very disciplined on message about what Americans care about right now," said Ron Kaufman, a Republican strategist affiliated with Romney's campaign. "And what they care about most is the big picture -- jobs and the economy. Obviously environment and energy and innovations are important. But they're only important as they play into the bigger picture."
Environmentalists targeted the candidates before the debate as pandering to conservative voters who denounce government regulations, at the expense of public health and reduced pollution.
The liberal Center for American Progress accused each Republican of demonizing U.S. EPA policies designed to reduce toxic air pollution. The criticism aligns the candidates with energy corporations, while rebutting long-held Republican attacks describing EPA regulations as a job-killing byproduct of big government.
"Every family has the right to expect clean air, free of the elevated heart and lung disease risks that air pollution poses," Noreen Nielson, the energy communications director for CAP's action fund, wrote in a blog asserting that Iowans would feel "devastating" impacts if Republicans block the EPA from enforcing the Clean Air Act.
President Obama was also in the Midwest yesterday. His appearance at Johnson Controls in Holland, Mich., emphasized the same theme as those of his Republican challengers: jobs.
Wind and corn both play in Iowa
After a week of dizzying market fluctuations, the nation's first credit downgrade and ominous signs from Europe's economy, Obama tried to reassure the nation that a bright spot in the storm is in the clean energy sector.
Higher fuel economy standards -- which he noted were imposed without congressional action -- will help new markets emerge, like the advanced battery plant he was visiting in Michigan, Obama said to the company's workers (see related story).
Obama's Republican challengers will also have an opportunity to promote clean energy. Iowa has more wind power capacity than every state but Texas, and it provides about 20 percent of the state's electricity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
All of the candidates are expected to sign a wind blade measuring 130 feet long that was built in Iowa by TPI Composites, Inc., says AWEA. The group credits the state's renewable energy portfolio and other pro-wind policies for generating clean energy investments amounting to about $5 billion in Iowa.
"Today wind turbines are almost as much a part of Iowa's fabric as corn," Denise Bode, AWEA's CEO, said in a statement.