After twice seeking the presidency as the nominee of the Green Party, and playing a critical role in building it into a force capable of delivering almost two-dozen state ballot lines and a nationwide infrastructure of volunteers, Ralph Nader turned his back on the party and announced earlier this year that he would mount an independent campaign for the nation's top job. As that campaign struggled to gain ballot lines and volunteer support, however, it began to look as if Nader could use the help of the Greens. Thus, with party delegates gathering here for Saturday's national convention vote on who to back for the presidency, Nader and his backers made what at times looked like a frantic attempt to secure the endorsement of the Greens.
On the eve of the convention, Nader selected a prominent Green, two-time California gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo, as his vice presidential running mate. Though he did not make a formal bid for the party's nomination, he signaled that he wanted its endorsement. He expressed sympathy with the party platform. His backers flooded the convention hotel and hall with green-and-yellow "Nader/Camejo 2004" posters and, on the night before the presidential vote, Nader spoke by phone to a rally where the crowd chanted "Run Ralph Run."
It was too little, too late.
The convention rejected proposals that it endorse Nader and instead nominated David Cobb, a lawyer and anti-corporate activist who had mounted a full-fledged campaign for the party's nod. The contest was reasonably close. Cobb won 408 votes in the second round of balloting -- 23 more than half those cast – to secure the nomination. In that round, 308 votes were cast for no nomination. If the "no nomination" option had prevailed, it was expected that the convention would then vote to endorse Nader's independent candidacy.
Cobb, who played an active role in Nader's 2000 campaign, was generous in victory. "Ralph Nader has had more influence on my life than anyone who is not a direct relative. I am a lawyer because of Ralph Nader. Without Ralph Nader, this nomination wouldn't have happened," Cobb told delegates gathered at the Midwest Express Center in downtown Milwaukee. "Ralph, if you are watching, thank you for what you have done, and thank you for what you will continue to do."
Warm words for Nader were common at a convention where some delegates held signs that read, "Where is Ralph?" Few doubted that Nader could have secured the nomination if he had not shunned the party during the first months of his candidacy. "If Ralph had made a serious effort to win the nomination, he would have won it," said Medea Benjamin, a nationally recognized peace and economic justice activist who campaigned with Nader in 2000, when she was the Green Party nominee for a California U.S. Senate seat. "But he didn't even show up. I think a lot of Greens felt that he was taking them for granted."
Benjamin backed Cobb, who unlike Nader is a member of the Green Party. Cobb said his primary goal was to built the Green Party for the long-term. At the same time, he promised to avoid running a campaign where he could be accused of "spoiling" the contest between President George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry by drawing votes from Democrat is key states and throwing the election to the Republican – as critics claim Nader did in 2000.
While Cobb criticized Kerry's "corporate agenda," he promised to "honestly tell the American people that George W. Bush is even more dangerous than John Kerry."
Practically, Cobb plans to campaign for Green candidates in all 50 states, but only to aggressively seek votes for himself in the roughly 40 states where the Bush-Kerry contest is not expected to be close.
That commitment distinguished Cobb from Nader. But, in the end, it was Nader's neglect – until the last minute – of the party that had twice run him for the presidency that Benjamin and others said did him the most damage.
"If he would have come here, he would have been a shoo-in," Rick Otten, an Ohio delegate, said of Nader.
There was also a sense among many of the delegates that, while Nader was a bigger name, Cobb would be more serious about the work of party building. "This feels right," Minnesota Green Party activist Annie Young, who backed Cobb, told a reporter. "This is about building the party. We've broken our leash with Ralph Nader. Now we're ready to go out on our own and see what we can do."
Nader, who continues to show well in many polls, is much better known than Cobb – and that is likely to remain the case through the November election. But Cobb could end up on more state ballots than the veteran consumer activist. The Greens already have ballot lines in 22 states and the District of Columbia. Party volunteers will work to get Cobb on more ballots. But some of the most serious hurdles have already been cleared. For instance, the Green nomination automatically secures Cobb a place on the ballot in California, the nation's most populous state.
On the other hand, Nader's campaign will have to scramble to gather the more than 150,000 signatures that are required to get the name of an independent on this year's California ballot.
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