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McCain Targets Independents with 'Green' Effort

Just a week ago, Arizona Sen. John McCain was courting the Republican faithful with a speech in North Carolina promising to follow President Bush in appointing conservative judges to the federal bench. Later this week, he will again court the right when he speaks to the National Rifle Association in Kentucky.

But for the moment, McCain's tone is very different as he tries to reach out to independent and moderate voters at campaigns stops in the Pacific Northwest.

McCain visited a watershed center outside Seattle on Tuesday, where he stressed his commitment to environmental protection. McCain even planned a nature walk around Washington's Cedar River Reservoir, with reporters and photographers in tow, and held a roundtable discussion with a group of Washington state conservation advocates.

Sally Jewell heads the Seattle-based outdoor gear company REI, a cooperative with 3.5 million active members.

"We have members that span from the far right to the far left of the political spectrum," she said. "But I think the one thing they all appreciate is a healthy environment."

By wrapping himself in the fleece vest of environmentalism, McCain hopes to reach out to that constituency. He repeated his pledge to combat greenhouse gases by limiting the amount of these gases that companies can emit and encouraging those who emit less to sell their permits to others. This "cap-and-trade" system is similar to plans proposed by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton — albeit with less stringent limits on carbon pollution.

McCain's Green Campaign Aimed at Moderate Voters

"McCain simply cannot win in November if he can't consolidate the center and win the swing independents who determine every presidential election," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. "His task is tough enough because of President Bush's unpopularity, the unpopularity of the Iraq war and the tanking of the economy. If he gets too identified with the right wing of his own party, he's going to alienate those swing independents, and he'll lose the election."

McCain is closely identified with President Bush in his support for the Iraq war and an economic policy built on tax cuts. But Sabato says so far, that has not been the drag on McCain's campaign that it might be.

"Right now, he has that maverick image, and he's running 20 to 25 points better than the Republican brand," Sabato added. "The Democrats' job is to make sure that doesn't continue. McCain's job is to make sure that it does."

The environment is one area where McCain can put some daylight between his views and President Bush's. Speaking on Monday in Portland, Ore., McCain subtly criticized the president for not doing more to combat global warming.

"I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges," he said.

McCain also went out of his way to praise Oregon's Democratic governor and to promise more bipartisan cooperation if he is elected president.

"We need to draw on the best ideas of both parties and on all the resources a free market can provide," he said.

Skeptical Democrats

Democratic presidential candidates and their allies in Washington hope to pour some cold Seattle rain on McCain's effort to portray himself as a different kind of Republican.

Members of the Washington State Labor Council plan to picket a McCain fundraiser on Tuesday, and council President Rick Bender says his members will be campaigning door to door this weekend, trying to build a link in voters' minds between McCain and President Bush.

"Bush is extremely unpopular here in Washington state," Bender said. "And, as you know, Washington state has been a blue state for some time, and he'll probably be doing everything he can to make sure that he's not tied to Bush. But we'll help him there, because his voting record is pretty much in line with the president about 89 percent of the time. So, that won't be hard for us to detail."

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.