John McCain rode an airboat across the fragile and imperilled Florida Everglades yesterday to underscore his credentials as a conservationist, albeit of a uniquely Republican variety.
In the manner of his heroes, the bear-hunting President Teddy Roosevelt and the adventurer-author Ernest Hemingway, the Republican candidate presents himself as a hunting, shooting, fishing-style environmentalist. He also believes in global warming and proclaims that unlike President George Bush, he is prepared to undertake urgent but realistic action to combat it.
The Democrats routinely claim Mr McCain is running for President Bush's third term. This is not true, he says. "You will hear every policy of the President described as the Bush-McCain policy. I have worked with the President to keep our nation safe. But he and I have not seen eye to eye on many issues." He pointed to the "disgraceful" recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina and global warming.
But the rebranding came unstuck yesterday as his Republican colleagues in the Senate blocked an ambitious global-warming Bill that would have forced massive reductions in America's greenhouse gases. Debate over climate change is already a core to the presidential fight, and now the most ambitious attempt to force change in the US will have to wait for a new congress and president. But Mr McCain's visit to Florida and his attempts to "greenwash" his credentials also ran into problems. He was forced to explain why he voted to oppose a major piece of legislation that promised $2bn for restoration of the Everglades. Why, he was asked, did he vote that way if he was such an environmentalist?
Florida, once home to Hemingway, is a key swing state in the forthcoming presidential election and the Everglades are a must-see for any candidate seeking to woo voters. The fate of the Everglades looms large in the minds of Florida's voters. The state depends on the Everglades for fresh water, and millions of voters see its degradation, from crass overdevelopment, as a symbol of many American's indifference to the fate of the environment.
The ecosystem is actually a shallow, slow-moving river 60 miles wide and 100 miles long that flows into Florida Bay at the sub-tropical southern tip. Teeming with fish and wildlife which includes the alligators that nest in its sawgrass marshes, the Everglades are slowly drying due to water extraction and drought.
"I am committed to saving the Everglades," Mr McCain said. "I will do whatever is necessary to do so and have made that clear."