Pat Lister recently lost her job as a data-entry clerk and her husband has been unemployed for two years. Things are so dim, the lifelong Republican can't bring herself to vote the way she was raised but can't make the leap to Democrats, either. Ralph Nader is her tinge of hope.
"Republicans, good, and Democrats are bad, is the way I grew up thinking," she said. "That darn upbringing is what haunts me."
Lister, 44, of Des Plains, Ill., said she would feel disloyal abandoning the GOP for the Democrats, "but if I voted for Nader I won't feel so bad about it."
Democrats insist Nader is up to nothing but mischief in his independent presidential campaign -- a liberal bound to siphon off votes from their side and imperil their chances again if the election is close like the last one.
But some voters just can't settle for a choice between President Bush and John Kerry, and Nader is their safety valve.
By most measures, Nader is a marginal player who gets less than 10 percent in the polls and faces a daunting task in getting his name on the ballot in all 50 states. Nader failed last month in his first attempt to qualify for Oregon's ballot but plans to try again. He is trying to get the 64,076 signatures to get on the Texas ballot required by May 10.
But if the election is won and lost on the margins as it was in 2000, people like Cathy Allen, 38, of Baltimore, will count.
"Right now I'll vote for Nader," she says, "just to throw my vote away."
As a registered Democrat, she plays to the party's worst fears -- that Nader will draw away just enough Democrats to tip the balance in Bush's favor.
Democrats contend that's what happened in 2000, when Al Gore would have gone over the top by winning one more state. They say Gore almost certainly would have won Florida or New Hampshire or both if Nader hadn't been a factor. That's why liberal groups have been begging Nader to get out.
Nader scoffs at the argument and insists he will draw his support this time from Republicans or conservative independents who can't stand Bush. Most analysts dismiss that scenario. But such voters exist.
"Dan and I very much are far worse off than four years ago," Lister said. "We need a change and it better come quick."
A poll conducted this week for The Associated Press by Ipsos-Public Affairs put Nader's support at 7 percent, compared with 46 percent for Bush and 43 percent for Kerry. Nader was at that level or higher during 2000, but his numbers dropped as the election approached. He won 2.7 percent of the vote as the Green Party candidate.
Scott Keeter, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, wouldn't be surprised if that kind of fade happens again.
"Right now every poll I've seen shows him taking votes away from John Kerry," he said. "The question is whether people who like Nader can flirt with him at no cost right now and whether they'll change their mind come Election Day."
Karlyn Bowman, who specializes in public opinion at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Nader is bound to finish lower than his current poll numbers because of his difficulty getting on many state ballots. And Bowman doesn't think much of Nader's theory that he will draw from anti-Bush Republicans.
"If he's counting on conservatives, I think he will be out of luck," she said. "Bush has extraordinary support with conservatives and Republicans at this point and I don't see much evidence that they'll be inclined to switch and give support to Nader."
In Wakefield, R.I., engineer Doug Bower says there's a 50 percent chance he'll vote for Nader, as he did in 2000. Kerry is the other possibility. He's a bit worried about "throwing the election" to Bush.
"I think Bush is way too far right and religious and scary," Bower said. "I don't really trust Kerry."
Greg Ryan, 41, a Venice, N.Y., farmworker, figures his vote is wasted anyway because his state is certain to go for Kerry. But he plans to support Nader, with Bush being his second choice.
"I don't see Kerry doing anything for us," Ryan said. "I see his liberal record. I see him taking more money out of our pockets." Because he sees his vote as a protest, it does not matter that Nader is more liberal than the Democrat.
In Halletsville, Texas, Frank Eckert, 76, says he'll probably throw his vote away on Nader, too.
"I like Nader's honesty, his simplicity," Eckert said. "Some ideas I don't like. We have bad choices this time, though.
"It's a wasted vote," he went on, "but I like to vote."
Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press