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Can Dubya Play Green Game?

In brilliant sunlight and in front of a sparkling Lake Tahoe vista, Texas Governor George W. Bush outlined his environmental policies Thursday, emphasizing cooperation between government and private landowners.

The politician who pioneered the notion of voluntary compliance with emissions standards said, "Our philosophy is to trust local folks."

Does the governor of the state that's home to the nation's smog capital have a prayer with eco-conscious voters against Al "Mister Environment" Gore?

In the age of triangulation, the environment is one issue where voters have a real choice. The candidates' big differences include: the Kyoto accords that would require the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gases - Gore's for it, Bush against.

Bush favors drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil; Gore just promised to set one-fourth of national forests off limits to road-building and logging.

Gore has a 20-year record of involvement with the issue; Bush is going to school.

So why does Bush think he can get in the green game? Why not punt?

"Bush constitutionally concedes nothing to nobody," says Rich Bond, the former RNC chairman. "He's very aggressive as a political figure, as evidenced by his willingness to touch the third rail" with a recent proposal to tinker with Social Security.

Gore's long history with the issue wins him votes with environmentalists, but who votes for Bush on the strength of his "brownfields" initiative?

Bond thinks the earth issue can work for Bush among women and independent voters, and in the West.

"Bush has an opportunity to blend the environment into the issues mosaic he has constructed so successfully since the war with McCain's been over," Bond says. The tiles in the mosaic are education, seniors, health care and immigration. "He has a nice blend of issues going that will pay dividends with voters, particularly women voters."

"It's somewhat unconventional for a Republican presidential candidate early on in the campaign to be seizing on the environmental issue as one of his thematic considerations and I think independents find that refreshing."

In the West, ranchers and legislators were outraged by President Clinton's recent creation of a 1.7 million-acre national monument in Utah because they were cut out of the process. A new Associated Press analysis shows 8 of 13 Western states solidly with Bush or leaning towards him.

Like his education agenda, Bush's conservation plan stresses local discretion over federal grant money, local decision-making and public-private partnerships.

Democratic strategist Mark Mellman is, well, skeptical. "His record demonstrates he stinks on the environment! Texas has the dirtiest air and the dirtiest water and it's gotten worse since he's been governor."

Maybe Mellman is thinking of Texas's second place finish among states for breachin federal air health standards, or its No. 5 ranking for toxic emissions released into the air.(The Bush campaign says toxic emission were cut by 14 percent between 1995 and 1998.)

"He's got rhetoric but he doesn't have positions to back that up, and he's got a record in Texas that gives lie to his rhetoric," says Mellman. "The last thing we want [Bush] to do is do for the country what he did for Texas."

Even if Bush does somehow steal the environment from Gore this summer, he may be sorry he ever brought it up this fall. Mellman predicts "significant" scrutiny and discussion of Bush's Texas record as the election draws near. Republicans, however, are heartened by the memory of how hard it was for them to pin Arkansas's depressing environmental condition on Bill Clinton in 1992.