Swamp wars: the battle for Florida's voters

Last week, John McCain took an airboat tour of the Everglades - and had a decidedly bumpy ride. Most of the fuss, stirred up by Florida Democrats and the Obama spin machine, focused on McCain’s Senate vote against a $2 billion Everglades restoration project: a troubling snub for Floridian voters, for whom the River of Grass is both a potent symbol and a vital source of fresh water.

McCain tried to shrug off the attacks, saying that he’d have supported the Everglades measure if it hadn’t been so thoroughly larded with pork. That’s not a convincing argument, since the bill in question wouldn’t have committed new funds to the projects in question; in any case, McCain’s tepid response leaves Obama with a chance to carve out an important environmental advantage in the Sunshine State.

Democratic strategists may be wary of trying to score points on the environment; after all, the green gambit didn’t serve John Kerry well last time around. Still, that was four years ago, and times have changed: Lately there has been a growing recognition that Florida, with its low, storm-prone coastlines and its agriculture-and-tourism based economy, has more than most to lose from global warming and environmental degradation.

These days, according to tracking polls, Floridians are more concerned than ever about climate change, and also increasingly open to strict environmental regulation. The state’s politically important Hispanic demographic has also grown increasingly engaged with environmental issues; even the state’s Republican governor, Charlie Crist, saw his approval ratings skyrocket last year after imposing tough new limits on automobile emissions.

John McCain is clearly aware that he’s vulnerable on environmental issues; on his recent Everglades trip he made a point of fanning speculation that he might pick Gov. Crist as his running mate. Putting Florida’s “green governor” on the ticket would certainly help McCain’s chances; still, Crist lacks experience on the national stage, and is unlikely to win the Republican number two spot.

That all adds up to an important opportunity for Barack Obama. His climate plan is more ambitious and far-reaching than his rival’s; meanwhile, he’s got a better voting record on the environmental issues that matter to Floridians. Now he needs to make the environmental message his own; this time around, going green could prove a sound strategy in the Sunshine State.

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