Jason Salzman still remembers how he felt about the Democrats and Vice President Al Gore in 2000. "I was at the end of my rope with the Democratic Party," says the Denver-based public relations consultant.
Despite objections from family, friends, and colleagues, he cast a vote for Ralph Nader, his first for a third-party candidate. Even after the Florida election fiasco, Mr. Salzman still felt he'd done the right thing, and proudly plastered an "Unrepentant Nader Voter" bumper sticker on his car.
But after two years with President Bush in office - and what Salzman saw as increasing evidence of the president's "extremism" - he began feeling a few twinges of regret. When the bombs began to fall on Baghdad last year his twinges become full-fledged remorse.
"The day that happened," he says, "I took a razor blade and excised the "un" from the unrepentant sticker on my car. It was a liberating act of self-correction, and now I think all Nader voters should experience it."
Salzman is serious; in fact, last summer he started one of the first of a small but growing group of Internet campaigns to swing voters away from Nader (www.repentantnadervoter.com). And this month he started a political action committee that will allow him to raise money to support his efforts to get former Nader voters to vote Democrat in 2004. "We [still] love Ralph Nader," he says. "But Bush has turned out to be so extreme it's not worth the risk to vote for Nader again."
Other Internet-based anti-Nader campaigns include StopNader.com, Ralph-Nader.info, Don'tVoteRalph.net, and GreensforKerry.com. Some sites, like Salzman's, are grass-roots efforts. But others are run by Democratic Party faithfuls, including TheNaderFactor.com, which was started last month by Tricia Enright, whose campaign credits include Gov. Howard Dean's recent bid and Al Gore's 2000 run, and by two top aides from Gen. Wesley Clark's short-lived presidential campaign.
What all the groups have in common is the fear that in another close election, Nader (who announced his pick for vice president this week) could once again play a decisive role as a third-party candidate in crucial swing states - much as he did in Florida in 2000, where he won some 97,000 votes as Mr. Gore lost the state by less than 600 votes.
"I think Nader is scaring the bejeebies out of the Democrats," says Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a newsletter. "They have nightmares of 2000 all over again."
The result is an unusual political scenario, in which there is an organized effort to stop a third-party candidate - something never confronted by Ross Perot, who started the Reform Party in 1992 and won nearly 20 percent of the vote in that year's presidential race.
What's different in Nader's case, say experts, is the unique circumstances of the 2000 race - which was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court - and the very changed, and politically charged, political landscape of 2004, which has filled many Democrats with an almost missionary "anybody but Bush" zeal.
Many prominent "progressives" who supported Nader in 2000, including documentary filmmaker Michael Moore and Ben and Jerry's cofounder Ben Cohen, won't be supporting Nader this time. Even The Nation magazine, which has had a long relationship with the anticorporate crusader, editorialized against him running.
For his part, Nader is undaunted. "A lot of liberals have abandoned us," he acknowledged in a recent phone interview. "And it will be hard to get them back. They've reached a point of desperation where their expectation level is even lower. That's too bad.
"When they signal to the Democrats and to John Kerry that they are part of the anybody but Bush crowd, they aren't making any demands on the Democrats," he said. "Therefore if Kerry wins, he's not accountable to them on any progressive issues."
Nader, who ran as the Green Party candidate in 2000, is running as an independent this year, and has launched signature campaigns across the country to gain access to state ballots. In addition, the Reform Party has offered him a spot as its candidate in the seven states where the party has qualified to be on the ballot.
And Nader has told the Green Party, which holds its convention on June 26, that he would accept their endorsement if they don't nominate a candidate, which would mean ballot access to the 22 states where the Greens have qualified. His choice of longtime party activist Peter Camejo as his vice presidential pick could well bolster his support from the Greens.
As for drawing votes from Democrats, Nader and his staff argue it's far more likely that he will draw votes from disgruntled Republicans. A 2000 CNN exit poll said 25 percent of Nader's voters came from the GOP.
"A lot of conservatives are upset with Bush on a lot of issues," including corporate bailouts and trade agreements that have led to the loss of American jobs, says campaign spokesman Kevin Zeese. "Obviously, he won't appeal to the Christian right, but there are Northeast liberal Republicans, McCain Republicans, Libertarian Republicans, environmental Republicans" who could be attracted to Nader because of his stand on issues that appeal to them, says Mr. Zeese.
Current polls show Nader drawing 4 to 6 percent of the vote - the same percentages he was drawing at this point in the 2000 race. Several of those polls show that Nader definitely plays a factor in the race; when he is included in polls, he shifts the percentage of support away from both Kerry and Bush by a few points.
Even though it's possible that Nader's support may drop significantly come election day as it did in 2000, when his final tally was about 2.7 percent of the total vote, anti-Nader voters worry that anything could happen in such a tight and volatile race.
"We want to reach out to Nader supporters because we think they can be a formidable force for change, not just in kicking Bush out, but in creating fundamental change in the Democratic Party," says Tricia Enright, of TheNaderFactor.com, which has already run television ads in New Mexico and Wisconsin, featuring a former Nader voter. "There's room in this party for Dean Democrats and Clark Democrats, and what we want to say is, there's room for Nader Democrats."
But many Nader voters don't want anybody else. "The left is very suspicious of the mainstream Democratic Party establishment," says Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science at Iowa State University. "To them, Nader is still the warrior who stood up and fought and fought and fought, often alone. He was a pioneer against corporations, polluters, and big money. It's not clear that Kerry is going to bear that standard."
Lynda Hernandez is one of those diehard voters. A Green Party member who voted and volunteered for Nader in 2000, she recently took a leave of absence from her job to campaign full time to secure Nader a spot on the California ballot.
"I basically feel that when you vote, you vote for someone you believe in," says Ms. Hernandez, a longtime third-party voter. "Otherwise, why vote?"