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Liberals Beat Drum for Gore, Hope Nader Backers Listen

Politics: Fearful that the Green candidate could tip some states to Bush, an organized effort is underway to bolster the vice president's chances.


MINNEAPOLIS — Liberal leaders and interest groups are mounting a massive nationwide effort to drive supporters of Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader back toward Al Gore.

Fearful that Nader could siphon away votes from Gore and tip as many as half a dozen ordinarily Democratic states to Republican George W. Bush, a constellation of liberal stalwarts this week is organizing rallies, buying television and radio ads, and organizing phone banks all aimed at bolstering Gore against Nader.

The players range from celebrities such as feminist Gloria Steinem, singer Melissa Etheridge and actor/director Robert Redford to elected officials and national organizations such as the Sierra Club and the National Abortion Rights Action League.

On Tuesday night, for instance, just blocks from where Nader was meeting with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a caravan of liberal activists held a rally here urging Nader supporters to switch their votes.

"I like to call this: It's the Supreme Court Stupid Tour," said Candace Gingrich of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.

That argument was typical of those being raised by Gore's liberal defenders.

Candidacy May Give Election to Bush

On one track, Gore's supporters are challenging Nader's core contention--that no meaningful differences separate Democrat Gore and Republican Bush on key issues. On the other, they are charging that Nader's candidacy may set back the causes he espouses by delivering the election to Bush--and with it the power to appoint as many as three Supreme Court justices.

"I have tremendous respect for Ralph Nader, and I have stood with Ralph on just about every single issue," Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, perhaps the Senate's most liberal member, declared at a downtown rally with Gore here last weekend. "But it would be a horrible irony if a vote for Ralph Nader meant George Bush becomes president of the United States of America. This is too dear a price to pay for our country."

This effort is fraught with irony, because many of those now making the case for Gore against Nader have been among the liberals most disaffected from the centrist course that Gore and President Clinton have pursued. And, indeed, even as they are exhorting Green Party supporters to switch to Gore, several of the liberals mobilized in this effort say Nader's appeal shows the risk of the Clinton-Gore drive to redirect the party.

"In a nutshell, they have pursued soccer moms at the expense of Greens," complains California state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), who has made several appearances urging Nader supporters to back Gore. "The Democrats are blaming Nader, but on the other hand, Nader wouldn't have a candidacy if there wasn't a space there [on the left], if the space wasn't open."

In Minneapolis, sitting in the appropriately ramshackle office of the Nader presidential campaign, Ken Pentel is starting to feel as if he's living in a bunker. Even before the rally Tuesday night, Nader supporters faced a steady barrage from Democrats and prominent liberals arguing that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.

"The Democratic Party is coming in with full force," says Pentel, an experienced young organizer helping to direct Nader's bid in the state.

In the short run, these attacks on Nader may have had the unintended effect of raising his visibility. But even Nader backers worry that the drumbeat from the left may cause second thoughts among liberals now inclined to support the consumer advocate. "People like Paul Wellstone, Jesse Jackson, Tom Hayden are definitely going to have an effect, no question about it," says Pentel. "The fear factor is powerful."

Gore had better hope he's right: If voters still undecided in the campaign's final days break away from the party in the White House, as they often do, the vice president will need every Nader vote he can find to hold several states that Democrats once considered a sure thing.

Mobilization Focused on Half-Dozen States

Although national in scope, the liberal mobilization is focused primarily on about half a dozen states with strong progressive traditions where Nader has shown his greatest strength--helping Bush to remain surprisingly competitive with Gore. These states include Maine, Washington and Wisconsin, where polls generally show Gore clinging to a narrow lead; New Mexico, which has been a tossup; and Oregon and Minnesota, where public polls have shown Nader drawing as much as 8% to 10% of the vote and Bush narrowly leading Gore. Except for New Mexico, a genuine swing state, all of these are states that Democrats expected to carry this year.

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