WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Four years after the GOP's rallying cry became "drill, baby, drill," environmental issues have barely registered a blip in this Republican presidential primary.
That's likely to change as the race turns to Florida.
The candidates' positions on environmental regulation, global warming as well as clean air and water are all but certain to get attention ahead of the Jan. 31 primary in a state where the twin issues of offshore oil drilling and Everglades restoration are considered mandatory topics for discussion.
"It's almost like eating fried cheese in Iowa," said Jerry Karnas of the Everglades Foundation. Drilling has long been banned off Florida's coasts because of fears that a spill would foul its beaches, wrecking the tourism industry, while the federal and state governments are spending billions to clean the Everglades.
Though most expect the candidates to express support for Everglades restoration — as Mitt Romney did in his 2008 campaign — environmentalists are noting a further rightward shift overall among the GOP field. The candidates have called for fewer environmental regulations, questioned whether global warming is a hoax and criticized the agency that implements and enforces clean air and water regulations.
"A cycle ago, there were people who actually believed in solving some of these problems," said Navin Nayak of the League of Conservation Voters. "Now we're faced with a slate that doesn't even believe in basic science."
The candidates, of course, dispute such a characterization. But their stances have generally grown more conservative. And even when they haven't, they often offer positions that aren't in line with conservationists.
— Romney heralded the passage of stricter limits on carbon emissions in 2005 when he was governor of Massachusetts but last year said it was a mistake. He previously agreed with the scientific consensus on global warming and humans' contribution to it but now says "we don't know what's causing climate change."
— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich supported tougher environmental regulation early in his congressional career and appeared in a 2008 TV spot with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pleading for action on climate change. Now he's says appearing with the San Francisco liberal was "the dumbest thing I've done in the last couple of years" and is calling for lifting restrictions on offshore drilling and branding the Environmental Protection Agency a "job killer" that must be replaced.
— Texas Rep. Ron Paul said during his 2008 campaign that "human activity probably does play a role" in global warming. Now he calls the science on manmade global warming a "hoax."
— Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum shows fewer signs of a shift on such issues. He has called for more drilling, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and doubts research that points to a human role in global warming, calling it "junk science."
An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found about $2.8 million in campaign donations were made by those in the energy and natural resources sector, according to Federal Elections Commission data, with about 84 percent of it going to Republicans.
Meantime, the EPA, which is responsible for policing environmental rules, has been singled out for Republican criticism this campaign season. Paul has called for its outright elimination as part of his plan to drastically curtail the federal government. Romney has said it's "out of control." Santorum has railed against the EPA's limits on mercury from coal-fired power plants. And Gingrich has called for overhauling the EPA, saying it should be converted to an "environmental solutions agency."
Nayak says: "There's no doubt that this kind of slate of presidential candidates is one of the most regressive and most closely tied to polluters that we've seen at least in decades."
Some Republican presidents and nominees have been strong environmentalists. Teddy Roosevelt was seen as a role model to environmentalists, using his presidency to establish wildlife refuges, preserve forests, and conserve water. Richard Nixon helped create the EPA that has been vilified by his successors on the campaign trail today. And the last Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, was the chief co-sponsor of a bill that sought mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions.
Michelle Pautz, a political science professor at the University of Dayton who focuses on environmental policy, said the current slate of Republicans may not be giving much reason to applaud their environmental stances, but it may not matter much overall with the economy taking center stage.
"The bottom line is both with the GOP primary and looking to Obama and the general election, the green vote is a non-issue," Pautz said. "There are too many other issues crowding out the environmental ones."
But Tony Cani, the national political director for the Sierra Club, said taking what he calls "extreme" views on the environment won't play well come Nov. 6.
"They're going to be hurt with young voters, women, families, Latino voters," Cani said.
Jim DiPeso, of Republicans for Environmental Protection, said he hopes to see a shift as Election Day draws closer, but that the state of politics right now has made ecological issues untouchable.
"A lot of the more pragmatic mainstream Republicans just are trying to steer clear of the issue because it's become so politically fraught," he said.