In his White House bid, Al Gore's main foe may be a Republican, but the vice president is beginning to feel an unusual squeeze from two minor parties - one because it is prospering, the other because it is not.
First, consider Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. In the 1996 presidential race, the feisty consumer advocate spent less than $5,000, got on the ballot in less than half the states, and won less than 1 percent of the vote.
This time, Mr. Nader is already on the ballot in 37 states, and is inching up to 6 percent in recent national polls. In some areas, he is breaking into double digits. Experts say most of those votes will come at the expense of the Gore candidacy.
A second insurgent campaign also poses a threat to Democrats, precisely because it is not taking hold. Renegade ex-Republican Pat Buchanan just won the endorsement of the Reform Party - or at least that part of it that didn't stalk out of the party's convention in Long Beach, Calif., this weekend.
But the battle to win that nomination arguably drew more attention to the party's internecine bickering than to Mr. Buchanan's candidacy, and now crucial funding is tied up in a legal dispute.
The upshot is that Gore must focus on damage control on his left flank (where Nader is attacking), even as George W. Bush faces, so far, little serious contention for the votes of bedrock Republicans.
Especially worrisome to Democratic strategists is where Nader's support is coming from: It is strongest in the liberal belt that runs through New England and the upper Midwest (Minnesota and Wisconsin) - classic territory for Democrats - as well as among environmentalists in Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico.
In the key electoral state of California, the latest polls spot Nader at 6 to 8 percent of the vote, enough to tip the balance to Texas Gov. George Bush, if this race narrows.
"I'm seeing a lot of people enthusiastically joining our campaign, because they're tired of holding their noses and voting for candidates they don't really support," says Susan King, Green Party coordinator for northern California. "I had to recruit 10 volunteers just to call back all the volunteers who are calling in every day."
This trend is enough to make top Democrats here in Los Angeles make a point of urging voters not to "waste" a vote on a party that can't win.
"I don't think that voters are going to waste their votes [on Nader]," says Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, tonight's keynote Democratic Convention speaker. "If they're interested in significant environmental causes and keeping big business honest, our party and Al Gore offer their best balance."
But Green Party activists say that pitch won't work this time.
"Every four years, we're told that you can't vote for someone you believe in because someone bad will get in. The Democrats are just spinning fear, and we don't believe people will respond to it," says Woody Hastings, who coordinates the Greens campaign in southern California.
Meanwhile, Buchanan, who in 1996 staged a serious bid for the GOP nomination, appears to be floundering.
Reform Party rivals are contesting his claim to the $12.5 million in federal funds due the party's candidate.
They say physicist John Hagelin is the real Reform Party nominee and should get the funds. (When parties capture 5 percent of the vote, as Reform Party founder H. Ross Perot did in 1996, they can claim federal funding for the next presidential cycle.) The Federal Election Commission ruling could take weeks, followed by an expected appeal to the courts.
Even before last weekend's abortive party convention, Buchanan had dropped from of 3.6 percent in an April poll to 1 percent.
"The split could mean we could lose quite a few people," says Alan Chambers, chair of the Reform Party chapter in West Los Angeles.
Experts say it also takes pressure off the Bush campaign, which could have seen defections of its own had a freshly financed Buchanan candidacy taken hold.
For Democrats, such defections would be a welcome offset to their own Nader-inflicted losses.
"Never count Pat Buchanan out," says Joe Andrew, national chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "There is nobody better at getting buzz. He will do a very good job of getting his message out.... And Ralph Nader is not going to get the $12.5 million that Pat Buchanan may get."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society