Sparring over climate, McCain and Romney highlight GOP dilemma

Two of the leading Republican candidates for president sparred in front of Florida primary voters today over the best direction for U.S. global warming policy.

Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney didn't so much talk about their ideas for dealing with climate change as they did blast each other's records on the issue.

Earlier today, Romney visited a West Palm Beach gasoline station to criticize McCain over the costs of a global warming bill the presidential candidate first introduced in 2001 with independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Romney cited recent studies from U.S. EPA and the Energy Information Administration and argued the latest version of the bill would increase energy costs $1,000 for a family of four. He added that the McCain-Lieberman measure would do little to reduce global warming given the growing rate of greenhouse gases that come from the rest of the world.

"The net effect would be that emissions had just moved from one country to another and also jobs had moved from one country to another," Romney said. "And what is left behind in our country would be the burden of paying for the entire cost of this symbolic act."

McCain's campaign quickly answered Romney attack, challenging the former governer's own record by pointing to Romney's reversal in 2003 on a cap-and-trade plan for the Northeast.


Romney initially supported Massachusetts' participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative pact with eight other states, saying it would boost his state's economy. But he later backed down over concerns the program would cost too much.

"Mitt Romney has proven in this campaign that he will say anything to anyone at any time if he thinks it will help him politically," Jill Hazelbaker, McCain's campaign communications director, said in a statement. "His stunning capacity to reverse his position on virtually every issue casts serious doubt on his ability to lead."

Broader GOP debate

Climate change may not figure in how Florida Republicans vote in tomorrow's primary, but the tension between Romney and McCain underscores a broader debate within the GOP over the best method for tackling the issue once President Bush leaves office next January.

McCain hopes his long-standing support for a stronger U.S. global warming plan will sway conservative Democrats and independents in a November election. It also could entice environmentally minded Republican primary voters like the ones who helped him earlier this month to win in New Hampshire.

"Although some of the radio talk show hosts go on and on about what a bad idea dealing with climate change is, they're an awful lot of Republican environmentalists, the average people who generally vote Republican, you have an awful lot of members who are concerned about it," said former CIA Director James Woolsey, a McCain energy adviser.

By contrast, Romney's climate stance builds on a strategy that he successfully deployed against McCain in the Michigan primary. There, Romney took issue with the McCain-Lieberman bill and the Arizona senator's vote in favor of increasing automobile efficiency standards.

"This is one of the things that sounds great until you go sticking bayonets in people's jobs," Grover Norquist, president of anti-tax lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform, said in an interview last week. Norquist has not endorsed a candidate in the Republican primary.

There is considerable conflict over climate among Republican voters. Some in the party's base question the science. Others doubt the need for more government mandates.

"The Republicans need to have a strong, positive message" on climate change, said Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney and former director of EPA's air office under Bush. "But I think that message is not a new regulatory program."

There is also a GOP constituency with views that trend toward greater action, including hunters and recreational fishers, national security hawks, evangelicals and corporations concerned about their liability to future regulations.

"There's no question Republicans are debating this issue," said Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and campaign manager in Bush's 2004 re-election. "There's not a Republican position. There are a number of different Republicans who have different positions."

Mehlman, now an industry attorney, recently started lobbying for clients who support cap-and-trade legislation.

Speaking with reporters earlier this month, Mehlman pointed to polling data that he thinks makes the case that climate change can help GOP candidates win back the independent voters who propelled Democrats into the House and Senate majority.

"This is an issue where independents want to see it done," Mehlman said.

Climate change is also an issue Republicans must address if they want to appeal to younger voters. "If you're under 45, the environment is a value," Mehlman said. "It's not an issue. That's very important. It's not something people debate. To the extent we're seen as an anti-environment party, our future will be very much limited."

Another GOP political consultant maintains that it won't help Republican candidates in their pursuit of independents if they premise their arguments on the economic costs of a new climate policy.

"Republicans should not and for the most part do not approach this kind of policy defensively," said Tucker Eskew, a White House communications adviser from 2001 to 2003. "If you do, you're going to lose."

Nominee would shape agenda

While many disagree with him, there is little doubt that McCain's climate change position would shape the party's agenda if he can win the Republican nomination and, potentially, the White House.

"It would not affect me personally, but I think everyone with average intelligence understands that the president carries a lot of weight as it relates to these issues," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). "If there's a president in office that feels strongly that cap-and-trade ought to be in place, it'll have an effect. If there's one that doesn't, it'll have an effect."

Several Republican sources predict the party would rally behind McCain -- if only to keep a Democrat out of the White House.

"If he solidifies his lead and becomes the nominee, I think most Republicans will come home," said Jim DiPeso, policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, a group that has endorsed McCain. "They know the alternative is a candidate who certainly they disagree with much more strenuously and broadly."

Some Republicans fear heartburn if McCain wins the nomination, all but guaranteeing they will be dealing with a government after Bush that is focused on a stronger climate policy.

"We'll probably work with the House guys," Norquist said. Pat Michaels, a skeptic on global warming science working at the Cato Institute, predicted that climate skeptics "probably should go to the op-ed pages."

Yet others are not ready to give in quite yet. "I'm not sure he really understands the whole picture and looked at the cost-benefit analysis," said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio).

Asked how he would talk to McCain about climate change if he became the president, Voinovich replied, "I think I'd probably do my best to educate him."

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