Nader is Poised to Play Spoiler

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2000; Page A01

Although he was excluded from the national debates, has no money for television advertising and rarely rises above 4 percent in national opinion polls, Ralph Nader enters the last two weeks of Campaign 2000 poised to make an important impact: According to polls and campaign officials, he could tip as many as six states from Vice President Gore to George W. Bush, making a potentially crucial difference in the Electoral College.

Nader, the iconoclastic candidate of the Green Party, has failed to gain the momentum among independents and union households that he hoped for when he launched his campaign this year, and most polls show him hovering just below the key 5 percent threshold in the national vote that would entitle his party to federal financing in the next election.

With only 15 days to Election Day, however, Nader has attracted enough support in six traditionally Democratic states to give Bush a chance to win and collect their 61 electoral votes. They are states where environmentalists are strong--Oregon and Washington--or where left-leaning populism still has an important appeal: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Maine. All six states have voted Democratic for at least the last two presidential elections, and experts agree that most of Nader's support has been drained from Gore.

Alarmed by the numbers, Gore's campaign plans an intensified effort in the campaign's final days to portray Nader as a spoiler. "He could swing the vote to Bush," said Gore campaign chairman William Daley. Daley said several Democratic senators with strong liberal credentials, including Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Paul D. Wellstone (Minn.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.), have volunteered to campaign for Gore and press the case that a vote for Nader amounts to a vote for Bush.

"I've got to believe that as this race remains tight, that people who were more willing to vote for Nader when it was a runaway [in their states] will realize that their votes are important," Daley said.

Nader, who spent this weekend in California wrapping up a national tour with the theme "Don't Waste Your Vote," usually dismisses such Democratic appeals. Gore and Bush, he said in an interview, "are both so marginal on the great issue of the distribution of power and wealth, and the corruption of cash register politics, that whatever real differences they are willing to fight for pale in comparison to the major subjects they are exactly on the same page on."

But in a news conference Saturday in Oakland--where more than 6,500 supporters packed a downtown coliseum to see Nader alongside Harvard professor Cornel West, singer Patti Smith and the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra--Nader hinted that anxious Democratic voters could practice "tactical voting" this year.

"If Gore is nine points ahead of Bush" in polls the day before the election, Nader counseled, voters "can vote for the Greens and have it both ways. They can help build a watchdog party after November 7 by depleting the vote totals from both parties."

The seriousness of the Nader threat to Gore abruptly escalated last week with the publication of a poll in Minnesota, a state previously considered solidly in Gore's camp. It showed Bush ahead 44 percent to 41 percent, with 8 percent going to Nader.

"Nader could make it close," said Mike Earlandson, Minnesota Democratic chairman. "I don't think there are a lot of Bush votes hiding in the Nader vote."

In Oregon, where Gore's lead over Bush had shrunk to 1 percentage point in a recent survey, with Nader at 6 percent, Democratic leaders are becoming openly angry at the longtime consumer crusader. The Nader bid for the presidency is "irresponsible and reckless to the progressive movement," said Neel Pender, executive director of the Oregon Democratic Party. "All the things he has worked on for 30 years he is willing to jeopardize for his own ego."

The same argument was made directly to Nader in an open letter at the end of last week by 12 of the original "Nader's Raiders," the team that worked with Nader to expose faulty consumer products, such as the Corvair automobile. "It is now clear that you might well give the White House to Bush," the letter said. "As a result, you would set back significantly the social progress to which you have devoted your entire, astonishing career."

"I think they're well-intentioned but frightened liberals who sided with the lesser of two evils," Nader responded Saturday.

On the stump, Nader has been much harsher in his criticism of Gore, whose centrist strategy he considers a betrayal of progressive causes, than of Bush.

"George W. Bush we can dismiss with a summary comment: nothing more than a corporation disguised as a human being," Nader said last week in California. But in the case of Gore, "there's no end to his betrayal. . . . The only difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock."

Almost all evaluations suggest that the majority of Nader's voters would back the Democratic nominee if Nader were not in the race. But some, according to the Gore campaign, are angry at the system and are unlikely to vote for either a Democrat or a Republican. According to strategists in the Gore and Bush campaigns, if the 8 percent currently indicating support for Nader in Minnesota faced a Nov. 7 ballot without the Green Party, the race in that state would be a tie instead of a 3 percentage point advantage for Bush.

In Michigan, the latest Epic-MRA poll for the Detroit Free Press shows the race tied, 43 percent to 43 percent, with Nader getting what could easily become a crucial 3 percent. In Washington, an Oct. 12-16 survey by the American Research Group found that Gore held only a 2 percentage point lead, 45 percent to 43 percent, with Nader getting 5 percent.

Republicans contend that Bush will be able to close the gap with Gore in California, in large part because Nader has been campaigning intensely there and has been running at about 5 percent. But most public polling still shows Gore with a large lead.

Some of those who attended Nader's Oakland rally said they were still hesitating about whether to vote for him. Angelo Nigro, 82, a retired machinist and a lifelong Democrat, said, "Nader has got his pulse on the things that are wrong with this country." But, he said, "I'm caught in a box. I sure would like to vote for Nader, [but] I'm just a little concerned that voting for him might put Bush in office."

Earlier this year, Democrats hoped that any impact by Nader on the presidential campaign would be offset by the Reform Party candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan, a former Republican who draws his support almost entirely from the right. Buchanan, however, has yet to put together an effective campaign or become a factor in the race, registering at 1 percent or less in most polls.

Special correspondent Liz Garone in Oakland contributed to this report.

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