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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Close Vote Costs Nader the Green Nomination

June 27, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE — The Green Party chose a little-known California attorney as its presidential nominee Saturday -- a serious blow to Ralph Nader and a potential boon to Sen. John F. Kerry.

Nader, the Green candidate in the last two presidential elections, sought the party's endorsement this year for his independent candidacy -- a move that could have gained him ballot access in at least 22 states and the District of Columbia. Instead, after days of feverish debate, the Greens opted for David Cobb, 41, by a narrow margin.

That was good news for Kerry, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee whose campaign is worried about a repeat of the 2000 election. Nader was on the ballot in most states that year, thanks largely to the Green Party, and he was blamed by some -- and thanked by others -- for paving the way for Republican George W. Bush's narrow win over Democrat Al Gore.

Cobb's nomination means that Nader faces the arduous task of qualifying for the ballot on his own in the states where the Green Party has a ballot line. Many ballot experts predict Nader will fall short in some of these states, which include key battlegrounds Wisconsin, Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico and Nevada.

By nominating Cobb, the Greens have a candidate "with zero name recognition," said Dean Spiliotes, a fellow at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "It may be a good exercise in building up the party on the local level, but it means the party will drop off the radar. It's a shock, but it is great news for Kerry."

Cobb's campaign strategy also should help Kerry. Cobb plans to avoid a hard sell in the states that Kerry and President Bush are most closely contesting -- an approach that some have described as a "safe state" strategy.

His focus will be in states that are dominated by either the Republicans or Democrats, where he has said he will push progressives to vote Green as an "investment" in the party's future. Those states probably will include California, which Kerry is expected to carry easily and where the Green Party has a ballot line.

To qualify as an independent in California, Nader will have to gather more than 150,000 signatures of registered voters.

Green Party co-chairman Ben Manski said the group hoped that by November, it would have qualified Cobb for the ballot in more than 30 states. But a clear rift in the party was created by Saturday's vote, and it might last, say party officials.

After Cobb was officially nominated, many Nader supporters stormed out. Some sobbed. Others cursed and threw their Green Party posters to the ground.

"This is a dark day," said Robert Nanninga, a delegate from Encinitas, Calif. "We've just nominated a white lawyer with a car salesman's smile. It might as well be a Republican. This is going to be remembered for years to come."

Third-party presidential candidates typically attract little attention and minuscule voter support. But with polls showing a close race between Bush and Kerry, analysts and political leaders took careful note of the Green Party gathering.

"The threat of Nader [as the Green Party choice] was real to the Democrats," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. "In critical states ... his votes could have made a difference. Cobb? No chance."

This year, Nader was endorsed by the Reform Party, which gave him ballot access in seven states, including the battlegrounds of Florida, Colorado and Michigan.

The Green Party convention, which attracted about 1,000 attendees, had something that the Republican and Democratic conclaves lost decades ago -- suspense.

In Saturday's first round of voting, delegates split among 11 different candidates. Most sided with Cobb, Nader or Peter Camejo, a Californian and Green Party activist whom Nader last week tabbed as his running mate on his independent ticket.

After no single candidate garnered a majority vote in the first round, a subsequent slimmed-down list led to delegates giving Cobb about 53% of their votes -- 408 out of 767.

"This says that the Green Party, which Ralph Nader has long considered his, has finally gotten out from under his shadow," said Cobb.

"We wish them good luck, but there are still many Greens who are for Ralph Nader," said Nader spokesman Kevin Zeese. "This is not over for us."

Many delegates and Green Party officials said Nader's decision not to attend the convention in Milwaukee helped tip the balance to Cobb. Nader, who is working on his campaign in Oregon, spoke to delegates via telephone at a rally Friday night.

"It was hard for a lot of people to be sympathetic to him, because they got here -- and he didn't bother," said Marnie Glickman, a Green Party co-chairwoman.

She added that Cobb, a Humboldt County resident, "spent the time and energy to be with us. [Nader] did not."

Before Saturday's vote, delegates milled through the ballroom of the Midwest Airlines Center, many sipping organic coffee and nibbling on vegan snacks.

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