Like many people in a small but suddenly crucial group of voters, college student Jessica Nock is smack in the middle of a self-described "voting crisis" about whether to support Ralph Nader.
This bubbly political science major - one of more than 1,000 people at a Nader rally here Friday night - wants to vote for the Green Party presidential nominee. But she doesn't want to help put Republican George W. Bush in the White House.
In this too-close-to-call presidential race, the Grape-Nuts set suddenly matters. If enough people at the far left of the political spectrum back Mr. Nader - especially in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, and even Iowa - they'll siphon support from Democrat Al Gore and help Mr. Bush win.
For Ms. Nock and others, the dilemma is this: Short-term worry about Bush's environmental record and likely US Supreme Court nominees versus a longer-term concern that the entire system is defunct and that Bush and Mr. Gore are "two peas in a very corrupt pod," says independent pollster Tim Hibbits.
He figures about half of potential Naderites are "switchable," while the other half are steadfast.
If the folks at a Nader rally here in Iowa are any indication, it's hard to tell whether the "switchable" voters will actually switch. Like so many American voters this year, many are still perched on the proverbial fence.
Yet there's one thing Nock is sure of: "George Bush scares me," she says, her big eyes bulging with concern. "He just seems too much like a used-car salesman."
Yesterday in Seattle, a group including Gloria Steinem and singer Melissa Etheridge planned to make the case against voting for Nader, saying Bush is too conservative on issues such as abortion and the environment.
Courtney Cuff, spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth, which belatedly endorsed Gore, put it this way: "On the environment, George W. Bush is like Darth Vader, and Ralph Nader is Luke Skywalker." And "Gore is C-3PO," she says, "but unfortunately he's one of the two front-runners, and we've got to vote for him."
Others in the liberal Democratic firmament have come out against Nader. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, and even some former "Nader's Raiders" are encouraging a Gore vote.
"It would be a shame to lose this race by an eyelash over some symbolic votes," says Democratic consultant David Axelrod. In fact, he says, the Nader candidacy could ultimately hurt the causes for which Nader himself has long fought. "He's not protecting workers and consumers now," he says.
Yet there's a danger of overstating this case, says third-party guru David Gillespie, a political scientist at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C. "Democrats have to be careful that they're not taking Nader to the woodshed - not calling him a traitor to working people." It could ignite a backlash that would only hurt Gore, he says.
Concern about Nader has forced Gore to a defensive position. In the past few days he's been highlighting his green credentials and comparing himself with Nader. "I'll put my environmental record up against anyone, including his," Gore said this weekend.
At the rally Friday, Nader himself was highly critical of Bush, especially on the environment. "I finally figured out what Bush's environmental policy is," he said, speaking at a podium in the standing-room-only hall. A wry smile creeping onto his craggy face, he said, "I think it's 'Try not to inhale.' " The audience hooted in agreement.
But Nader is an equal-opportunity critic. He says Democrats' desire to please corporations to get their donations has made for weak regulation and slack enforcement of consumer-protection laws.
"They say I'm undermining my legacy of reform," he intoned at one point in the 1-1/2-hour speech. "What they don't know is that the Democratic Party has already done it for me."
Indeed, he sees both parties as corrupted by corporate money, as part of a "two-headed beast" fed by a "waterfall" of donations.
For Ebon Fisher, a professor who's nearly levitating with excitement over Nader's speech, that's the biggest reason to vote Green. "The political infrastructure is broken," he says passionately, his earring glinting. "I've got a kid, and I want to be able to do something so his future is better." Given Bush's conservatism, a vote for Nader "isn't an easy vote to make," he says, "but social change never comes easily."
Indeed, Nader is the only legitimate hope for a third party getting 5 percent of the total vote this year - and thus getting federal matching funds in 2004.
Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan, who got his party's $12 million in federal money this year, isn't anywhere near the 5 percent hurdle.
As for Nock, she's still undecided. In the end, if the race continues to be close, she says she'll probably vote for Gore. But she'd be sorry, because "Nader's a good alternative, and he's not as much of a politician. He's just really trying to talk to people."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society