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CAMPAIGN 2000

Worries of a Bush Win Raid Nader Support

October 28, 2000|RICHARD T. COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It wasn't supposed to be like this. Idealism was supposed to be safe this year.

It's not turning out that way for Eliane McNally, a Detroit bartender and mother of two who emigrated from Germany 30 years ago and became a citizen expressly to vote. When she first heard Ralph Nader, she said to herself, "Wow, finally somebody I can relate to in so many ways," a chance to vote for principles.

But these days, she's taking a constant drubbing from the union workers she serves at Honest?John's tavern; they say she could help George W. Bush win the White House.

Kathleen Dragoman of Youngstown, Ohio, also is conflicted. A retired schoolteacher, she too yearns to support Nader--if only her state weren't so important and the presidential race still so close. "I want to vote for Nader so badly. If I felt comfortable that Gore was getting in the White House, I would vote for Nader in a minute. I don't feel comfortable, and Ohio is a swing state."

And out in Olympia, Wash., at the Kill Rock Stars independent recording label, Maggie Vail says her colleagues talk of little else. "My sister switches back and forth every day" between Nader and Vice President Al Gore, she says. When did Vail decide she had to go for Gore? "Probably just in the last week."

For an election in which a majority of Americans may not even bother to vote, the 2000 presidential campaign suddenly has become an exercise in anguish for one segment of the electorate: thousands of idealistic liberals, left-wingers and progressives.

They didn't think it would be like this. Blessed with peace and prosperity, they had assumed Democrats easily would retain the White House, making it a good year to "send a message" by supporting Nader, the Green Party presidential candidate.

Instead, the race looks like a photo finish, and a relative handful of Nader voters find themselves viewed as a crucial voting bloc--and the target of unexpected attention.

Gore supporters warn them that they could indirectly elect Bush--a candidate who champions almost everything Nader backers hate, from big business and the global economy to fossil fuels and the death penalty.

On Friday, the executive director of the pro-Gore Sierra Club called Nader's campaign "flawed, dangerous and reckless" but stopped short of calling on him to end it.

In a letter to Nader, which was e-mailed to the environmental group's members, Carl Pope wrote: "My hope is that by electing the best environmental president in American history, Al Gore, we can move forward. My fear is that you, blinded by your anger at flaws of the Clinton-Gore administration, may be instrumental in electing the worst."

Even Republicans are getting into the act. A new ad paid for by a GOP group features Nader attacking Gore and is running in some of the states where the Nader vote could tip the balance.

Torn between their hearts and their heads, Nader sympathizers are fighting with themselves and with each other.

"I can't sleep at night. I'm a creature in torment," says a West Coast consumer activist who has spent 20 years fighting shoulder to shoulder with Nader. "The stakes are huge," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she represents a nonpartisan consumer group and is barred from partisan activity.

What lies beneath this angst is the extraordinary way the presidential campaign has evolved. Most times, the winner would be clear well before now. And third-party candidates normally fade to insignificance in the stretch.

"Voters flirt with maverick candidates in the primaries. But as they get closer and closer to casting a vote that could actually elect the president of the United States, there's tremendous pressure to come back to the two major parties," said Robert Loevy, a political scientist at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. "The tendency of third parties to disappear is one of the enduring realities."

Indeed, Nader's poll numbers are eroding. He and his hard-core supporters hope he will get at least 5% of the popular vote nationwide--and thus qualify the Green Party for federal campaign funds in 2004--but many surveys show him falling short of that goal. Still, the Bush-Gore contest looks so close that if Nader takes even a few percentage points away from Gore--and the vast majority of Nader votes come at the vice president's expense, analysts agree--that could swing a handful of states to Bush.

Slim Support, but Could Tip Tight Race

There's a prospect of significant Nader support in at least six states: Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Maine, which have a total of 48 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

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