Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential bid is attracting enough liberal support in key states to make life difficult for Al Gore this fall.
That's right - Ralph Nader. The venerable consumer crusader, a staple on the college lecture circuit for decades, has roared out of nowhere to scoop up environmentalist and union voters and threaten the Democratic presidential candidate from his left flank.
"Threaten" might be too strong a word, but "bedevil," certainly. Right now Mr. Nader is running at 4 to 10 percent in the polls in California - just enough to tip a state Mr. Gore must win into the GOP column. He has a similar effect in Oregon and Washington.
If nothing else, it seems probable that Nader will combine with the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan to account for 10 percent of the vote in November. That would make 2000 the third successive presidential election in which third parties reached that level of support.
"That may never have happened before," says David Gillespie, a political scientist and third-party expert at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.
Nader's appearance on the political horizon has taken many major-party activists by surprise. After Donald Trump declined to run, and Jesse Ventura opted to stay in Minnesota, and Ross Perot quit overt politicking, Pat Buchanan was supposed to be the major minor candidate.
But so far, Mr. Buchanan's defection from the GOP to the Reform Party has not helped either him or his new organization. Many of Buchanan's conservative followers did not ride with him away from the Republicans. And the Reform Party itself has been riven by his appearance in its midst. A significant percentage of Reformers don't agree with Buchanan's conservative views on abortion and other social issues.
Meanwhile, Nader was deciding that the times were right for a concerted effort on his part.
As the Green Party candidate in 1996, Nader barely campaigned at all. He spent less than $5,000 and got on the ballot in only a few states. In 2000, Nader has already raised at least $350,000 toward a goal of $5 million. He claims he will have his name on the ballot in 45 states.
His basic theme: The Democratic and Republican parties are virtually the same, and they are both tools of big business. Being Ralph Nader, he delivers this message with a ferocity that appeals to committed activists.
"On the big issue of whether our corporate government is going to take over our political government in Washington, you know what the difference [between the parties] is," he told a Michigan crowd recently. "The difference is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when the corporations come knocking on the door."
Some union leaders, frustrated by the Clinton administration's push for permanent normal trade relations with China, are openly talking about a Nader endorsement. United Auto Workers head Stephen Yokich praised him last week, saying Nader's policies are not based on "what big money dictates."
A few environmental groups feel the same way. Friends of the Earth is perhaps the largest such organization weighing a Nader endorsement.
All this has skyrocketed ... well, blipped Nader's support up to 6 percent nationally in a recent Zogby poll. While small, that percentage was enough to tilt the survey to presumed Republican nominee George W. Bush, assuming Nader's support would otherwise vote Democratic. Mr. Bush got 43 percent in the poll, and Gore 39.
Nader "is creating a little more noise than people would have thought," says Lee Miringoff, a political scientist at Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "In isolated states, he could be a factor."
For the Gore campaign, the problem is where that might occur. Polls show Nader getting as much as 10 percent of the vote in California, making that state competitive for Bush. In fact, at his current level of support, Nader turns the whole Pacific coast from a Democratic stronghold into a battlefield.
If Nader gets even 3 percent in Michigan and the rest of the upper Midwest, he could throw the election to the Republicans, depending on how much conservative support Buchanan siphons from Bush.
It's early yet, and support for protest candidates often evaporates as the election draws near.
Furthermore, Nader's position as a possible spoiler may be more indicative of Gore weakness than Nader strength. In California and other key states, "Gore is not running as well now as he needs to anyway," says Mr. Miringoff.
Gore campaign officials express unconcern about the Nader factor. They feel that his "surge," such as it is, is little more than a talking point for pundits.
Yet some experts say Nader is simply of a piece with Mr. Perot and other recent third-party phenomena. The last two presidential elections have already seen nonmajor parties get more than 10 percent of the vote - the first time that has happened sequentially since before the Civil War.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society