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Group To Go On Attack Against Bush On Environment

Vital election state relies on nature for its tourismA new advocacy group critical of President Bush's environmental record has picked its first target in the 2004 presidential election: Florida, the state that determined the outcome four years ago.

The group, Environment 2004, hopes to spend up to $5 million in about six states where the vote margin was close in 2000 and where issues such as water and air quality are particularly important.

''Florida is the perfect target for these issues,'' says the group's director, Aimee Christensen, a former Clinton administration official. ''Their economy relies on tourism, fishing, beach quality, water quality, natural resources. They are upset about overdevelopment and sprawl.''

Carol Browner, the state's former natural resources director and chief of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Clinton, will unveil the campaign today at the state Democratic convention in Orlando. She will release a report detailing what she contends are Bush's environmental failures that most affect Florida. Among them: slowing the cleanup of toxic waste sites, weakening safeguards against water pollution by agriculture and easing emissions rules for power plants.

''This threatens the health and pocketbooks of all Floridians,'' Browner said in a statement. ''Many of our seniors and children are particularly at risk when their health is so vulnerable.'' She said Bush is leading ''the most anti-environmental administration ever.''

White House spokesman Trent Duffy rejected the charges. Bush, he said, is ''finding the proper balance between a clean environment and a growing and vibrant economy that creates jobs.''

Browner is on the group's board of directors, along with Clinton's former Interior Department secretary, Bruce Babbitt. He will headline a fundraising event early next year in his home state of Arizona.

The group has raised $500,000 in gifts and pledges and has an additional $100,000 in a political action committee, Christensen said. If it can raise $5 million and target it at a select few states, it could have a significant impact.

Donors include Jessica Catto, an environmental philanthropist, and Peter Fox-Penner, chairman of an economic consulting firm, who each gave $25,000.

The group is the latest example of advocacy groups being created to take advantage of changes in the nation's campaign-finance law. That law banned the national political parties from accepting unlimited corporate, union and individual contributions, which amounted to $500 million for the parties in the last two-year election cycle.

The new interest groups hope to absorb the money that political parties can no longer accept. Most of them are aligned with Democrats. Some plan to advertise on issues that help one party or candidate. Some plan to formulate policy, and still others aim to register and educate voters and get them to the polls.

On Wednesday, the liberal-leaning group MoveOn.org announced a $1.9 million ad campaign in five states seen as crucial in 2004: Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Missouri and West Virginia. The New Democrat Network is airing $300,000 worth of Spanish-language TV ads in Florida and Nevada that attack Bush and try to lure Hispanics to the Democratic Party. And a Republican group, Americans for a Better Country, is asking the Federal Election Commission for guidance on how it can raise money to counter the Democrats.

Whether such groups can be as effective as the parties is unknown. In a close election, anything that gives an advantage to one candidate can be decisive. But it's unclear whether the efforts of dozens of independent groups, all with different missions, can be coordinated into an effective force.

In the case of Environment 2004, Republican pollster Whit Ayres said the issues of clean air and water are appealing, but not foremost in voters' minds. It is less important to voters than terrorism and the economy, Ayres said, and appeals most to core Democratic voters -- not the swing voters that both parties will be courting.
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