WASHINGTON (AP) _ For Democrats who believe Ralph Nader was a spoiler four years ago, 2004 might seem like just a bad dream instead of a nightmare.
Despite Nader's much-publicized failure to get his name on the November ballot in major states like California, Illinois and Texas, the independent presidential candidate is still on track to make the ballot where he could hurt Democrats most _ in key battleground states.
A full picture of exactly which states will list Nader might not emerge for another month as petitions are examined, signatures certified and Democrats pursue legal challenges to weaken the candidate they believe draws precious votes away from John Kerry, their nominee.
So far, Nader has met requirements to appear on the ballot in nine of 18 states actively contested by President Bush and Kerry this year.
Those states _ Arkansas, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Washington and West Virginia, along with Florida and Colorado through his Reform Party nomination _ have seen the Bush and Kerry campaigns spend millions buying ads and organizing grass-roots supporters to get out the vote in a race that could be as close as the 2000 election.
By the end of the month, Nader is likely to qualify in three battlegrounds _ Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin _ that don't require his supporters to collect too many signatures.
``If Nader keeps Kerry from winning in any state, it helps Bush,'' said James Davis, a political science professor at Washington University. ``The votes could be so close that if he gets 1 or 2 percent in some states, the other side wins.''
Democrats haven't stood idle. In dozens of states, Democratic state parties have backed a myriad of legal challenges to Nader's efforts to win ballot access, frustrating his supporters and draining his resources.
``Our state parties made the decision to make sure that if Ralph Nader wanted to get on the ballot, that he was playing by the rules,'' said Democratic National Committee Jano Cabrera. He said the national party is not funding the efforts but fully supports what state parties are doing.
So far, those efforts have successfully knocked Nader off the ballot in four key battleground states _ Arizona, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Missouri, although Nader is still appealing some of those rulings. In each case, officials found irregularities in Nader's petition signatures or ruled that he failed to follow proper procedures.
Nader has accused Democrats of harassment, intimidation and bringing frivolous lawsuits to stifle his candidacy.
``This is not some sort of charitable effort to make sure the laws are complied with,'' Nader said. ``People who collect signatures finish the day, go back home are being called or getting knocks on the door, saying if they have any fraudulent signatures they can be sent to jail.''
Two other battlegrounds _ New Mexico and Ohio _ remain uncertain. In New Mexico, Nader needs to collect a daunting 14,527 signatures by Sept. 7. He has already filed signatures in Ohio, but the state Democratic Party contends his petitions are riddled with fraud.
Bob Brendan, a Washington public interest lawyer who worked with Nader in the 1970s but recently formed United Progressives for Victory to oppose Nader's candidacy, said Nader's problems show how much the consumer advocate's support has dwindled since 2000.
``What it speaks to is how little genuine grass-roots base he's had in this election,'' Brendan said. ``He's gone and hired commercial firms this time to gather signatures as opposed to the grass-roots supporters he had last time. It seems like the Democrats have exposed an awful lot of illegitimate efforts.''
Running as an independent rather than affiliating with the Green Party, as he did in 2000, has made it much more difficult for Nader to meet more stringent state ballot requirements. Nader ran in 43 states and the District of Columbia in 2000, pulling in 2.8 percent of the vote on the Green Party's ticket.
This week, Nader said he hoped to get on 40 state ballots as an independent. On Thursday, his campaign sent supporters an ``SOS'' e-mail urging them to give money to help defend his petitions in various states.
He'll need it. On Friday, the Florida Democratic Party and an independent group of voters separately filed suit to keep Nader off the Florida ballot and accused the Reform Party's nomination process of being a sham.