ASHLAND, ORE. — There will be three political party conventions in California next week, each officially nominating well-known figures running for president of the United States.
One gathering will feature tens of thousands of Republican enthusiasts in elephant hats cheering wildly at GOP candidate Bob Dole's every word. Another will focus on Texas billionaire Ross Perot - back in 1996 after shaking up the political establishment four years ago.
The third convention - a decidedly frugal affair - will draw perhaps 400 participants, far less media, and a candidate who neither expects nor particularly wants to become president.
Ralph Nader has been a consumer advocate for more than 30 years. And he's become something of a national political scold, criticizing both major parties for what he calls "the concentration of power and wealth in too few hands and the takeover of the political government by the corporate government."
Mr. Nader has never held public office. But this year he's allowing the Green Party - an alliance of progressive political organizations around the country - to name him its presidential candidate.
So far, he's on the ballot in 11 states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. There are Nader-candidacy efforts in 42 states, and supporters expect to win spots on at least 30 state ballots with write-in efforts in four more states.
"Connecticut will make it, Rhode Island will for sure, New York and Ohio are looking very good," says Linda Martin, who leads the Draft Nader Clearinghouse based in Annandale, Va.
"This is a very nontraditional, unconventional campaign," Ms. Martin says. Nader is accepting no campaign contributions and running no TV ads. He's limiting all political spending to $5,000 (out of his own pocket), and there will be at least a half-dozen Green Party nominees for vice president among those assembled at the convention at the University of California in Los Angeles.
The 1996 elections represent a coming of age for Green Party politics in the US. Earlier gatherings have been bogged down in discussions of "process" and unsuccessful attempts to agree on philosophy and specific issues.
"When you're dealing with theory on a consensus basis it can get pretty strange," says Joe Keating, a carpenter and environmental activist running for a congressional seat in Oregon.
Several-dozen party representatives now hold office at the local and county level around the country. So far this year, 30 Greens are running for congressional or state legislative seats in nine states, and another 13 are running in local elections.
"Many of us have felt inadequately represented by Republicans and Democrats," says John Rensenbrink, a retired political science professor at Bowdin College in Maine now running for the US Senate seat of William Cohen (R) of Maine, who is retiring.
Nader and those he represents are perched near the left end of the political spectrum. They are pro-environment, pushing for a higher minimum wage and lower military spending; in favor of public financing of campaigns, opposed to welfare changes that harm the poor; and wanting to give more parties political access by revamping election laws.
But Nader also lines up with conservatives Pat Buchanan and Mr. Perot in opposition to NAFTA. "It's not just lefty activists, it's Joe Sixpacks calling us as well," says Mike Feinstein, an organizer of the Green convention in Los Angeles who is running for the Santa Monica city council.
Some left-leaning activists worry that Nader's presence on the ballot could end up helping Mr. Dole. Feminist Gloria Steinem and civil-rights advocate Ramona Ripston have suggested that Nader withdraw.
Recent surveys show Nader winning 8 to 11 percent of the vote in California. "If the national race ever got close, Nader's presence on the California ballot could cause Clinton some grief," says Mark DiCamillo of the San Francisco-based Field polling organization.
But Green Party officials reject that argument, saying there's little difference between the dominant parties these days. "What we're saying is 'a vote for Clinton is a vote for Dole,' " Martin says.
"We don't have a countervailing force, as Jefferson pointed out we should, against the monied interests," Nader says. By helping the Green Party, he hopes to change that.