Published on Friday, June 23, 2000 in the New York Times
Odd Man Out of Race,
Nader Rocks Gore's Boat
by Richard L. Berke
 
WASHINGTON - Months after they dismissed Ralph Nader as a fringe third-party candidate who would fade quickly, Democratic and Republican strategists now say he has emerged as more politically potent than Patrick J. Buchanan and could deeply complicate the candidacy of Vice President Al Gore.

James P. Hoffa, right, the Teamsters president, with Ralph Nader at his side, ridiculed Vice President Al Gore Thursday at a news conference.
Mr. Nader, the consumer advocate who is expected to capture the Green Party's nomination in Denver this weekend, is in single digits in most polls. No one thinks he has a chance of rising to the electoral heights of Ross Perot in 1992, who at this point in that campaign had the support of about a third of the voters in many polls.

And few people predict that he will reach the 15 percent threshold required to assure a spot in the nationally televised candidate debates this fall.

Even so, Mr. Nader is already forcing Mr. Gore to compete more vigorously for the active support of labor and other groups that are reliably Democratic. And many pollsters and analysts said that in a tight race with Gov. George W. Bush, a few points could make a difference -- and force Mr. Gore to reconsider his electoral calculations in important states.

In a close race, Mr. Nader could tip the balance in Michigan, Ohio and other swing states of the Midwest. In California, where Mr. Gore is running comfortably ahead, a Field Poll this week showed Mr. Nader drawing 7 percent. And a Quinnipiac University poll in Connecticut this week showed he had 9 percent. Mr. Nader is also showing strength in New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

More troubling for some Democrats is that Mr. Nader, who has ridiculed Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush as sounding identical and has emphasized his record as a consumer and environmental advocate, is becoming more and more popular with organized labor. By campaigning aggressively against the China trade deal, which passed in the House last month, Mr. Nader has effectively capitalized on labor's distress with Mr. Gore for his support of the measure.

In doing so, Mr. Nader has made Mr. Gore battle for a constituency that his campaign thought it could count on. In fact, pollsters say most of Mr. Nader's backers are not the swing voters that Mr. Gore needs to win over, but staunch Democrats who should already be on his side.

"The Bush people, I'm sure, are thrilled about Nader," said one of Mr. Gore's most senior aides.

Mr. Nader's potential for trouble was on display here today, when James P. Hoffa, the Teamsters president, appeared beside him at a news conference and ridiculed the vice president.

"There is no distinction between Al Gore and George W. Bush when it comes to trade," Mr. Hoffa asserted after Mr. Nader met privately with the Teamsters' 24-member executive board. He added that Mr. Gore was "wrong on trade" and said, "We agree wholeheartedly with what Mr. Nader has said." Mr. Nader won a standing ovation from the board.

Imploring the audience to take him seriously, Mr. Nader said: "People are always asking, 'Am I worried about taking votes away from Gore?' No. I'm worried about Gore taking votes away from me."

Gore advisers said they had moved aggressively behind the scenes to try to keep Mr. Hoffa from endorsing Mr. Nader, to the point where they had directed projects through federal agencies that would use Teamsters.

Those efforts may be paying off -- at least for now. "We're not going to hurry to endorse," Mr. Hoffa said today. But even Gore aides said a Teamsters endorsement of the vice president seemed increasingly less likely.

"We have options of endorsing or not endorsing," Mr. Hoffa added.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the assistant Democratic leader who is a Gore loyalist, contacted several labor leaders today, discouraging them from defecting to Mr. Nader. In an interview, he bluntly condemned Mr. Nader as a spoiler.

"Ralph Nader is a very selfish person and he's on an ego trip," Mr. Reid said. "He has no respect for the process."

Mr. Gore had never anticipated new headaches with labor, given that he had to struggle last fall to win the A.F.L.-C.I.O. endorsement against former Senator Bill Bradley. Now, not only have the Teamsters not rallied behind Mr. Gore, but he is also struggling for backing from the United Automobile Workers. The Teamsters have 1.4 million members; the U.A.W. has 800,000.

Earlier this year, most political strategists viewed Mr. Buchanan as the biggest threat -- and a potentially big problem for Mr. Bush. He has run twice for the Republican presidential nomination, even winning the critical New Hampshire primary in 1996. And if he wins the backing of the Reform Party, whose nomination he is seeking, he would draw $12.6 million in federal money.

But even if Mr. Buchanan gets that money, strategists now say Mr. Nader has a greater potential impact on the race because polls show that he takes his support almost exclusively from Mr. Gore. Mr. Buchanan, with backing both from protectionist Democrats and conservative Republicans, does not have as much potential to wound Mr. Bush.

Even with the Reform Party nomination, Mr. Buchanan would be weakened because many in that party do not like him. And despite Mr. Buchanan's staunch position against free trade, many unions see Mr. Nader as more of a soulmate because, unlike Mr. Buchanan, he is not conservative on social issues.

Over all, Mr. Nader is a far more popular figure than the controversial Mr. Buchanan. Fifty percent of registered voters have a negative view of Mr. Buchanan, while only 15 percent have a negative view of Mr. Nader, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken June 14-18. The poll found that 12 percent had a positive view of Mr. Buchanan, while 33 percent had a positive view of Mr. Nader.

"I would hate to be Al Gore looking at the third-party horizon this year," said J. David Gillespie, a political scientist at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., who is an authority on third-party candidacies. "Nader's draw in key states may be very crucial in determining the outcome of this election."

The strategy of the Gore and Bush campaigns thus far has been to ignore Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan, and not do anything to raise their profiles.

Joe Andrew, the national chairman of the Democratic National Committee, echoing some Gore advisers, insisted that he was not at all unsettled by Mr. Nader. "I'm not worried about it," he said. "It doesn't make much difference if Ralph Nader is an angel or not: people aren't going to throw their votes away."

Most voters, he said, do not know much about Mr. Nader -- and his backers will sour on him when they realize he is just "a human being" and not a loftier figure. "He's reached his high point right now," Mr. Andrew said.

A strategist for Mr. Gore put it this way: "In June, you're wasting your energy if you worry about these things. In October, it would be worrisome."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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