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LAST YEAR THE REPUBLICAN FRESHMEN rolled into Washington toting the Contract with America and vowing to dilute and roll back decades of laws and regulations, including those aimed at ensuring clean air, clean water and unsullied wilderness areas. But because they misread popular sentiment on the environment, the G.O.P. took a beating in the polls on this issue. Now as many as 91 House Republicans are voting with the Democrats on environmental measures. Shortly after the House reconvenes this week, Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to announce the formation of a task force to review the Republican approach to the environment; he says the party “mishandled” the matter last year.

A sampling last fall by Republican pollster Linda DiVall revealed that 55% of G.O.P. voters do not trust their party to protect the environment, which prompted her to note that “our party is out of sync with mainstream American opinion.” Suddenly “Senators and Congressmen who had a tin ear for the environment for the past three years are all over the issue,” says Greg Whetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council. So, too, is the Clinton Administration, after a brief hiatus in which the Democrats seemed willing to compromise with the antiregulatory zealots. (Clinton even signed a bill that had the effect of opening vast tracts of national forest for logging–which he now “regrets.”) Recently, with much fanfare, Vice President Al Gore unveiled a plan to protect the Everglades, despite opposition by powerful sugar companies. On the eve of the Florida primary, it was a clear challenge to G.O.P. efforts to reclaim the green vote.

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