Climate change climbed onto the debate stage a year ago, when Jon Huntsman diverged sharply from his opponents in the Republican primary by declaring that the Earth is warming because of human activity.
Now, Republican strategists anticipate that Mitt Romney could adopt a similar position tonight in his first debate with President Obama, as the former Massachusetts governor strives to attract moderate voters while defusing attacks that link him to anti-climate conservatives.
"If I were Romney, that's what I'd say," a former Huntsman adviser said. "I'd say, 'Look, sure, sure [climate change] exists. But I'm not going to do anything that puts our economy at risk right now, because we can't afford to.' That should be his position."
Striking that pose would close the distance between Romney and Obama on the climate issue, which the president has occasionally used to style the election as a struggle between reasonable Democratic policies and strict conservative orthodoxy. Over the weekend, Obama might have provided a glimpse into his debate strategy at a private fundraiser in which he said Romney reflects an uncompromising version of the previous GOP nominee, John McCain.
"He believed in climate change," Obama said of McCain on Friday night at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser. "He believed in campaign finance reform. There were differences, very profound differences, and yet there was still a sense, I think, that the differences between the parties could be bridged."
Romney could neutralize that attack with his freshest position on climate change. He told Scientific American magazine last month that "the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming" and that it could have negative consequences. But he questioned the severity of the changes and promoted passive plans to address it.
Tonight's debate might be the first time in the general election that Romney verbally asserts those positions. Republican strategists suspect that he might -- in an effort to marginalize the climate issue and preserve support among young and moderate voters.
"I would imagine that it's important to [the Romney campaign] that they want to be seen as reasonable on climate change issues. I don't think they want to make it a referendum on climate change," said John Brabender, an adviser to Rick Santorum in the primaries.
"I think ... they're trying to check the box, probably, to defuse this from ever becoming a major issue, rather than trying to figure out a way to pick up votes," he added.
Romney should accept climate 'reality'
But the strategy could also bring debate dangers. Last October, Romney positioned himself to compete with conservative primary opponents Newt Gingrich and Santorum by questioning whether humans are contributing to climate change. It was a subtle shift to the right that ignited a storm of criticism from environmentalists, who claimed that Romney was flirting with climate denial.
With his newest realignment, Romney could be exposed to attacks that he is inconsistent. Romney's past could also limit his ability to attack Obama on his pursuit of a carbon cap-and-trade program and incentives for renewable energy -- which he supported as governor of Massachusetts. Making those claims in television ads, without an opponent's response, is different than in a debate.
"You've got the whole problem of flip-flopping," the Huntsman adviser said, noting that Obama could claim in the debate, "Well, I'm just doing what you did in Massachusetts."
To other strategists, Romney's climate position is a reflection of his troubled campaign -- in which a moderate politician is forced to run as a conservative candidate. Rather than hewing to a position on climate change that pleases the conservative wing of the Republican Party, Romney should accept "reality," said John Weaver, who advised Huntsman in the primaries and McCain in 2008.
"Given the state of his campaign, and the fact that he's got to attract new voters, I think he's got to acknowledge reality, and hopefully he would, that climate change is not only happening, of course, but that we've got to take steps to address it," Weaver said. "I mean, we don't live in an alternate universe where we get to choose what's reality and what's not."
Weaver contends that Romney's primary positions, especially on immigration, narrowed the electorate by reducing his likability among Hispanic voters and other groups. That makes Romney dependent on a larger proportion of white voters, Weaver says, noting that climate might be a mid-level motivator among some of those younger voters.
"You could certainly make a very strong case that you can talk national security, economic development, energy independence and climate change all in the same answer, and appeal to a wide variety of people," Weaver said. "But why we [Republicans] don't do this is beyond me. ... I think it would be very appealing, and I don't think he would lose millions of voters to go vote for Barack Obama because he acknowledged reality. I just don't."
In Romney 'mindset,' no attack
Obama has his own dangers, other strategists say. Romney could address any energy-related debate question with a pointed attack about delaying the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which reinforces Republican claims that Obama's policies have driven up the price of gasoline, an assertion that economists disagree with.
The president is also open to attacks on climate waffling. His all-of-the-above energy approach emphasizes natural gas, a fossil fuel that produces less emissions than coal and oil but still contributes to the greenhouse effect. And his administration is now in the uncomfortable position of handling legislation approved on Capitol Hill that could prevent U.S. airlines from complying with a European program to cut airplane emissions.
"If I were Romney, I'd look at the president and ask him, 'Would you pledge right now to veto that legislation?'" said George David Banks, a senior aide to Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee until this summer.
"He's flip-flopped," Banks said of Obama. "He's not serious about [climate change]."
Other energy issues could also arise in the debate. Foremost among them is the production tax credit, which benefits renewable energy developers by reducing the cost of producing wind power. Obama might make hay over Romney's opposition to that program, given that the debate is in Colorado, which has seen its wind market grow.
But one Republican strategist sees what is perhaps Obama's biggest accomplishment as a ripe target for Romney -- fuel economy standards for cars.
In stump speeches, Obama routinely promotes the new rules for carmakers as a major victory for motorists and the environment. He says cars will use half as much fuel in a decade, alleviating gas prices and emissions.
But in an election that is focused on people's pocketbooks and, to a lesser degree, the size of government, Romney has an opening to lay a punch, said Mike McKenna, a Republican energy strategist. He claims that corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards increase the cost of cars, make them lighter and more dangerous and affect the environment by slowing the pace of fleet turnover.
"If I were Romney, I would love -- love, love, love -- to talk about the CAFE standards," McKenna said, before adding, soberly, that Romney does not seem to have the "mindset" to spring such an aggressive attack.
"I would be amazed -- I would be overjoyed and amazed at the same time -- if they came out with that line of attack," he said.