WASHINGTON - Sen. John Kerry met privately Wednesday afternoon with Ralph Nader, whose independent bid for the White House threatens to peel crucial liberal votes away from the Democratic presidential candidate in November.
The two men met for 70 minutes in Kerry's campaign headquarters in Washington and left without resolving the delicate dance unfolding between them.
Nader fled through a basement exit without addressing a throng of reporters; a spokesman said the consumer activist was concerned about a lack of security.
In a statement his campaign issued after the two men huddled, Nader said "the purpose of the meeting was to discuss issues of interest to the daily lives of the American public - to put the focus on the human race, not the presidential horse race."
Nader and Kerry discussed three issues: ending corporate welfare, supporting trade unions and cracking down on corporate crime, the statement said.
They did not discuss the Iraq war, but Nader's statement said that they "agreed that it would be useful to continue to stay in communication and stay in touch."
Nader emphasizes a speedy withdrawal from Iraq, and Kerry strategists worry that message could catch on as Iraq descends into chaos and Bush's approval ratings fall. Kerry advocates getting more international help into Iraq, but he also has said that he would support sending more U.S. troops if needed to stabilize the country, a position that is disappointing to antiwar Democrats.
A senior Kerry aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting was cordial and that the Massachusetts senator did not ask Nader to quit the race.
"Nader basically made the same argument that you have heard him make publicly many times, that he believes he is helping John Kerry by doing this, that he can provide a sharper counterpoint for Bush, and that the Democratic Party over the last 10 years has been too corporatist," said the Kerry aide. "And John Kerry said, `Don't judge me by the people who preceded me.'"
Democrats have clamored for Nader to drop out of the race, convinced that his presence risks re-electing President Bush. Many in the party hold the gadfly consumer activist responsible for the defeat of former Vice President Al Gore in 2000; Nader won more than the Republican's margin of victory, likely tipping the election to Bush, in important states such as New Hampshire and Florida.
In their conversation, Kerry stressed the issues on which he has agreed with Nader, the Kerry aide said, such as campaign finance reform, abortion rights and corporate accountability.
Nader also said he deserved to be included in debates between Kerry and Bush, but the Kerry aide said his boss was noncommittal; it is "premature" to discuss debates because there have been no negotiations on the subject yet, the aide said.
In a roundtable with editors and reporters of The Associated Press on Wednesday afternoon, Kerry said he would aggressively court Nader supporters.
"It's my intention to speak very directly to those people who voted for Ralph Nader last time," Kerry said during the meeting, according to the Associated Press. "I believe my campaign can appeal to them and frankly reduce any rationale for his candidacy."
One argument he will make, Kerry said, is that a vote for their man makes Bush's re-election more likely.
"In the end, I hope I can make people aware that a vote for Ralph Nader is a vote for George Bush," Kerry said. "A vote for John Kerry is a vote for the principles and values they care about."
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