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Climate policy is one of the top issues among Democratic primary voters. But how the candidates connect with voters on the issue may have less to do with policy points and more with how they frame the climate policy debate.

That debate took center stage this past week in the Democratic primary when CNN hosted a series of town hall discussions on climate change. Ten candidates participated in separate forums discussing the issue with CNN moderators and a live audience.

It had to be a town hall format, by the way, because the Democratic National Committee has nixed the idea of a climate change-focused debate.

Many candidates rolled out detailed climate policy statements in conjunction with the CNN event. But it may not be those policy points that move the needle for Democratic voters on this issue.

What could have a greater impact on the debate is how the candidates talk about the issue.

Most of the Democratic candidates agree on major points in the climate policy debate: most have said the U.S. should re-enter the international Paris Climate accord, that there should be a tax or penalty on carbon-producing businesses, that the U.S. should place significant investment and effort into shifting away from fossil fuels and toward renewable fuels.

However, a few of the candidates have taken a unique approach to discussing climate policy, which could help them stand out on a topic on which there is much agreement among their colleagues.

Elizabeth Warren, for one example, has described farmers as wanting to be a part of climate change solutions. She has said her administration would provide resources so farmers can engage in practices that could help reduce man-made climate pollution.

That approach attempts to take some of the edge off what can be an adversarial climate policy debate over farmers’ roles in climate pollution and whether they should be involved in efforts to reduce it.

Pete Buttigieg has worked his faith into the climate policy debate, saying during the CNN town hall that inaction over climate change is "a kind of sin."

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"Frankly, every religious and non-religious moral tradition tells us that we have some responsibility of stewardship, some responsibility for taking care of what's around us and our neighbor," Buttigieg said during the town hall, according to a CNN transcript. "Eventually it gets to the point this is less and less about the planet as an abstract thing and more about specific people suffering specific harm because of what we're doing right now."

In any primary, but especially in a field this large, candidates must find a way to make their policies stand out from those of their competitors.

In the climate change debate, these unique approaches by Warren and Buttigieg may just do that.

Important unknowns

This is a poll from a neighboring state, but the message resonates so bear with me.

A new poll from Marquette University Law School said a majority of Wisconsinites do not know enough about that state’s top legislative leaders to form an opinion of them. In a favorable/unfavorable question, 65 percent of Wisconsin voters said they haven’t heard enough about or don’t know Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, and 61 percent said the same of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

That would be akin to the same share of Iowa voters not knowing enough to form an opinion on Linda Upmeyer, the speaker of the Iowa House, and Senate Jack Whitver, who is majority leader of the Iowa Senate.

I don’t know whether the rates would be the same in Iowa. But the possibility is unsettling to someone who watches state government up close. Everyone gets wrapped up in a presidential race, but state government is also vitally important.

If I had a few wishes to address politics in our country, I would spend one to get more people tuned into local and state politics.

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Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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