"Cap and trade" has become a dirty phrase in much of the nation this election season, and the political storm over global warming's causes and solutions may determine several key races.

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Congressional Republican candidate Robert Hurt barely had begun his opening statement in a debate last week when he accused his opponent of endorsing “job-killing cap and trade.”

Hurt, a state senator, repeated the charge five times, insisting each time that Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom Perriello’s vote last year for a House energy and climate-change bill would cost the state 50,000 jobs.

The charges have potency far beyond this fiercely contested swath of central and southern Virginia. “Cap and trade” has become a dirty phrase in much of the nation this election season, and the political storm over global warming’s causes and solutions may determine several key races.

For the first time in nearly a decade, no Senate Republican candidate supports proposals to limit carbon emissions and trade pollution rights. Most openly question global-warming science or denounce it as a hoax. (Rep. Mark Kirk, running for President Obama’s old Senate seat in Illinois, voted for the House bill but now says he would oppose it.)

In some races, especially in coal-producing, farm and factory states in the mid-Atlantic and Midwest, partisan rivals appear united in their condemnation of major climate-change legislation.

At an Oct. 18 debate in Morgantown, W.Va., Gov. Joe Manchin, the Senate Democratic nominee, said Obama was “dead wrong on cap and trade” and that it would ruin the economy. His GOP opponent, John Raese, called global warming a myth.

Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who introduced the first Senate cap-and-trade bill in 2003 and vowed during his 2008 presidential run to make it a priority if elected, has joined the skeptics’ ranks. “I think it’s an inexact science,” he told a voters’ forum in New Hampshire.

Polls suggest several House races may turn on whether the incumbent voted for the cap-and-trade bill that narrowly passed the chamber in June 2009. A similar measure stalled in the Senate amid intense bickering and appears doomed.

Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, which supports climate-change legislation, said her group’s polling of 23 closely contested districts indicated voters were more likely to back Democratic lawmakers who voted for the bill and stood by it.

“With so many races so close,” she said, “it could have a significant effect on the outcome of the election.”

But Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster who has surveyed 31 House races for the American Action Forum, a conservative-leaning policy institute, said his data indicated the opposite.

“I’d be surprised if there are any Republicans willing to say they support cap-and-trade now,” he said. “Where a Democrat is in a competitive race, it’s a clear advantage for the Republicans to campaign against it.”

Advocates say a market-based system would help create “green” jobs, spur investment in alternative-energy sources and reduce reliance on foreign oil. Opponents argue it would stunt the economy, increase energy costs and do little to cool the climate.

For now, the battle over climate change appears to have put Democrats on the defensive.

In North Dakota, an energy-producing state, Rep. Earl Pomeroy has been forced to explain why Democrats had a vote on the cap-and-trade bill at all, even as he has made clear his opposition to the legislation.

Speaking to a coal-industry group this month, Pomeroy, a moderate first elected in 1992, said the vote was Nancy Pelosi’s “biggest mistake as speaker — and she’s made a lot of them.”

In Virginia’s coal-rich 9th Congressional District, 14-term Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher has been pounded for his climate-change vote. He sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where the bill originated.

“If you can point to one reason that Rich Boucher is in trouble, it’s the cap-and-trade vote,” said Isaac Wood, who studies House races at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “People say he’s demonizing coal and threatening their jobs.”

Boucher, who remains a slim favorite, said he helped negotiate provisions “to get the best deal for coal” in the legislation. The final bill included tens of millions of dollars for “clean coal” technology, funds that would have benefited the region directly.

“I’ve had to explain it,” he said. “It’s not easy to explain. It does not translate very well into a 30-second commercial.”

In adjoining District 5, Perriello has tried to turn the argument to one about clean energy and jobs. Trailing in polls all year, the freshman Democrat has trumpeted his efforts to funnel federal funds to renewable-energy projects in the economically depressed region.

“I think my message of energy independence and green jobs still beats the Republican message of burying your head in the sand and doing nothing, even in a very conservative district,” Perriello said.

But even some of his supporters are skeptical.

Roy VanDerHyde, who runs a dairy in Chatham, received about $1.2 million in state and federal grants this year to harness methane produced from cow manure. His herd in another month will provide enough electricity to power as much as 600 homes, he said.

“I’m split on cap-and-trade,” VanDerHyde said. “If it works, it could make my [project] a gold mine. But it will cost so much to run the dairy, it will be a wash. That’s what I’m worried about.”

James Oliphant of the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed

to this report.