Ralph Nader has sent a frisson of anxiety through the Democratic Party by announcing he will run for president. Four years ago, the consumer advocate took nearly 3 percent of the vote in a historically close election, and faced blame from some Democrats for tipping the race to George W. Bush.
This time around, the political climate is vastly different: Rank and file Democrats want, above all else, to unseat President Bush, and are in no mood to send signals about party policies by supporting a third-party candidate. In recent weeks, websites such as RalphDontRun.net and RepentantNaderVoter.com have appeared, trying to prevent a rerun of 2000.
Democratic leaders, too, are averse to taking chances in this year's vote, and put off by Nader's candidacy. "I don't want Ralph Nader's legacy [to be] that he got George Bush for eight years in this country," Democratic national chair Terry McAuliffe said on CNN. Mr. McAuliffe met with Nader several times to try to persuade him not to run.
Nader starts his new campaign from a weaker position than he did four years ago. He turned down an offer from the Green Party to run as its presidential candidate, and thus is forgoing a built-in network of supporters who could have helped with funds and foot soldiers. His late start will make it difficult to gather the thousands of signatures needed to get his name on state ballots.
But, speaking Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Nader dismissed the efforts to keep him out of the race as undemocratic, calling Washington "corporate-occupied territory" and his campaign a challenge to "this two-party duopoly."
"Money is flowing in [to Washington] like never before. It means that corporations are saying no to the necessities of the American people," Nader said. "Basically, it's a question of both parties flunking."
Analysts expect the November election to be close again, and even if Nader doesn't gain the traction he had four years ago, he could still affect the race.
"Just structurally, the country is very divided down the middle, and it doesn't take much to have an impact," says independent pollster John Zogby.
But, he adds, "I don't anticipate Nader getting anywhere near what he got in 2000.... This is an Armageddon election. Each side is saying, 'You elect the other side, and it's the end of the world.' In that kind of a situation, it's very difficult to see Nader getting many votes."
The biggest wild card in the Nader candidacy is all the supporters of former candidate Howard Dean, many of whom hailed from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and were attracted to the insurgent, outsider brand of politics that Nader also represents. In his speech last week announcing the end of his campaign, Mr. Dean made clear to supporters that they should not turn to a third-party campaign and that he would support whoever is the Democratic Party's nominee. But so far, the value of endorsements has been questionable in this campaign.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter, says the timing of Nader's announcement - right on the heels of Dean leaving the race - is noteworthy.
"Some of those Deaniacs are Naderite types," and would never vote for an establishment candidate, he says. But, Rothenberg adds, "I don't think all the Nader votes from 2000 translate to 2004. I do think some of those Nader people got it out of their system" after seeing how close the election was last time.
Nader himself takes issue with the analysis that he was the spoiler for Democratic nominee Al Gore. He notes that other third-party candidates won more votes than Bush's margin of victory in Florida, and that furthermore, if Vice President Gore had run a better campaign, the race would never have boiled down to a few hundred votes in one state.
Exit polls after the 2000 vote showed that 47 percent of Nader voters would have gone for Gore if Nader hadn't run; 21 percent would have voted for Bush; and 30 percent would not have voted.
For Nader, nearing the end of his career, the clear interest in running again lies in getting his longstanding anti-corporate message out to the public. Landing an interview on "Meet the Press" represents a PR coup; just two weeks ago, the president himself occupied the same Sunday morning TV real estate.
Nader's agenda includes criticism of the state of civil liberties in America post-9/11, full public financing of elections, universal health insurance, and a living wage for workers earning less than $10 an hour. By running again, Nader can also highlight his longstanding grievances over ballot access and access to presidential debates.
So far, the few polls that have included Nader's name have not shown much interest in another run for the presidency. A Fox News poll taken in December showed 1 percent of registered voters saying Nader had the best shot at beating Bush among Democrats running for president (even though Nader is not a Democrat). Among Democrats polled, Nader had zero support.
But that hasn't stopped some Democrats from taking action to try to stop a Nader campaign before it started. John Pearce and his wife, Kathy Cramer, northern California Democrats, launched RalphDontRun.net several weeks ago when it began to look as if Nader would run. Mr. Pearce says he has spent between $3,000 and $4,000 on the effort, and has raised about three-quarters of that money in small donations.
"We're disappointed he's running," says Pearce. "But I hope he gets the message: that a wide slice of the progressive community is against him running. The fundamental point is that we're all united in the desire to beat Bush this year."
• Staff writer Liz Marlantes contributed.