Democrats seek to counter Nader's impact on election

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Carolyn Barta / The Dallas Morning News

Ralph Nader's support for president appears well below the standard set by Ross Perot's independent candidacy in 1992 – but his impact could be far greater than that of the maverick Dallas political figure.

Polls and experts say Mr. Nader, the Green Party candidate, could tip the scales from Democrat Al Gore to Republican George W. Bush in at least half a dozen states, changing the Electoral College outcome in a close election.

The threat has become so serious that progressive Democrats, along with a dozen former "Nader's Raiders," are hitting the campaign trail to counter the impact of the populist firebrand and lifelong consumer crusader.

"If you were going to the polls today, my hunch is that he would turn the election to Bush. I think that can change," said Toby Moffett, former Democratic congressman from Connecticut and an early Nader employee.

"But I would be less than honest if I didn't tell you that there is a growing level of urgency on this," he said. "It's a big deal. My fear is that we won't make as much difference as we'd like to."

Mr. Nader said at a Washington news conference Wednesday that two Gore supporters – a prominent labor leader and U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan – have approached him about toning down his campaign.

He indicated no willingness to do so.

"If it made any difference to me whether Gore is elected or not, I wouldn't be running," said Mr. Nader, a former Democrat. "Most people who run for president run to take as many votes as possible from all the other candidates. Al Gore has to earn his votes just like all of us."

Although Mr. Nader was excluded from the national debates, can't afford costly TV ads and hovers around 5 percent in most national polls, his support makes him the balance of power in seven states that account for 66 electoral votes.

They include the Northwestern states of Washington and Oregon, where environmentalism is strong, and other states that have an independent tradition, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Maine, New Mexico, and Michigan, a state heavy with union members turned off by Clinton-Gore trade policies. All are states that President Clinton carried in 1992 and 1996.

"Nader may arguably have one of the biggest impacts we've seen from a third-party candidate – certainly bigger than Perot," said Dr. Howard Gold, a third-party expert who teaches government at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

Perot's influence

Mr. Perot won almost 20 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996 but didn't change the outcome in a single state, Dr. Gold said. Not since George Wallace's Southern-based candidacy in 1968 has a third party or independent candidate won any electoral votes.

Democrats initially believed that votes for Mr. Nader would be offset by defectors from the GOP to Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan, but Mr. Buchanan has been mired at 1 percent in national polls. The one state where he might have made a difference was in Michigan, the only state where he's not on the ballot.

"There's a great irony here. We started out the year discussing how the Buchanan candidacy could cost Bush the presidency," said former Buchanan press secretary Neil Bernstein. Now it looks like Mr. Nader can "turn it the other way," he said.

Both Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Nader say their objective at this point is to build new parties – Mr. Buchanan a conservative movement and Mr. Nader a progressive one – by mustering at least 5 percent of the vote to qualify for federal funds in 2004.

A 'side effect'

Affecting the outcome in key states, Mr. Nader said in Dallas last week, is a "side effect."

Mr. Nader's strategy had been to woo support in states that appear safe for one of the major candidates, such as Texas.

But analysts say he has has gone from competing in locked-up states to others where the election is up for grabs.

So, a counterattack has been mustered by leaders of a consortium of groups – representing such causes as abortion rights and the environment – who are sounding the message that "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."

Elizabeth Birch, director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian rights organization, will join with Robert Cox, president of the Sierra Club, and rock singer Melissa Etheridge for a concert and rally in Seattle on Sunday. They will be joined Tuesday in Madison, Wis., by feminist Gloria Steinem. The group will be in five states over five days.

The abortion issue

The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League announced Wednesday that it is running TV ads in Oregon, Minnesota and Wisconsin that say a Bush goal is to end legal abortion and name anti-abortion Supreme Court members. "Before voting Nader consider the risk," it says.

Other prominent Democrats who are speaking out on behalf of the Democratic Party include Sen. Paul Wellstone and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

As the race has tightened, several members of the original Nader's Raiders, who worked to expose faulty consumer products in the 1970s, urged Mr. Nader to reassess his campaign, a plea he rejected.

Mr. Moffett, who worked for the Nader effort from 1970 to 1973 as head of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, said the former Nader followers have placed ads in college newspapers and are doing interviews in critical states.

As for Mr. Gore, he's done his best to ignore the Nader threat. Pressed on the topic earlier this week in Oregon, he touted his own record and said:

"I don't want to use the argument that a vote for him is a vote for Bush. A lot of people say that, but I prefer to do my best to encourage people to support me enthusiastically – with their hearts."

Change of hearts?

Campaign insiders prefer to let surrogates do the talking. They say their research suggests that more than half of those who intend to vote for Mr. Nader will change their mind if it endangers a Gore win.

Meanwhile, independently funded, pro-Nader full-page ads were scheduled to appear this week in newspapers in New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Colorado, saying "a vote for Nader is not a vote for Bush." But Democrats said they've been pulled in California, where the race has become closer.

A Public Policy Institute of California poll released Tuesday showed a 5-point spread between the major party candidates and Mr. Nader drawing 6 percent. A Los Angeles Times poll had Mr. Gore at 48 percent, Mr. Bush at 41 percent and Mr. Nader at 5 percent.

Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside, said that he's increasingly of the opinion that Mr. Nader "could matter a lot, particularly in the Northwest states," where Greens are strongest.

But he also said that the Nader factor could mobilize Democrats to turn out their votes in battleground states.

'Could cost him'

Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, said the "real issue is how much of his support comes out of Gore's hide, or how much is new or young voters. My guess is that they're not going to all come out of Gore ... [but] if it's as close in Michigan as people think it will be, 11/2 or 2 percent could cost him the election."

Mr. Nader said polls indicate he's drawing from Perot voters, independents and new voters.

"Only Al Gore can beat Al Gore, and he's been doing a pretty good job of that," he said. "He's up against one of the most bumbling, corporate-indentured, horrible record, Republican candidates, George W. Bush, and he's still in a neck and neck race."

Staff writer Charles Ornstein in Washington contributed to this report.