Published on Saturday, August 12, 2000 by the Associated Press
Democrats Worry About Nader Factor
by Ron Fournier
LOS ANGELES –– With each passing car sporting Ralph Nader's name on the bumper, Wisconsin assemblyman Mark Pocan gets more worried.

"You're seeing Nader bumper stickers already," said Pocan, a Democratic National Convention delegate who doesn't think Al Gore's team is taking the Green Party candidate seriously enough. "I'm always afraid when they don't pay enough attention to the Nader factor."

Nader is not a threat to win the presidency – registering around 5 percent in national polls – but the consumer activist could siphon votes from Gore and tilt several battleground states toward Republican George W. Bush, according to a number of delegates at Gore's own convention.

In dozens of interviews, the Democratic activists urged Gore to focus on the environment, campaign finance reform and other issues on Nader's agenda. A number said Gore lacked the passion – one called it "a certain mystique" – that Nader possesses. And some blamed Gore himself for any Nader threat, saying the vice president had driven traditional Democrats away in his courtship of the political middle.

A handful of delegates to Gore's convention all but pledged their allegiance to Nader.

"I'm not enamored of Gore's leadership. I welcome Ralph Nader's challenge," said Tom Singer, a psychiatrist from San Francisco.

For all the hand-wringing, just as many delegates dismissed the Nader factor.

"Right now, it's a very sexy story because there has not been a challenge to our party's unity in some time. I don't think most people in Pennsylvania even know who Ralph Nader is," said Nick Colafella, a state representative from Beaver, Pa.

Gore advisers say Nader's appeal will dim as the election draws closer. They're also counting on Pat Buchanan to nab would-be Bush votes, though the fiery conservative is tangled in a legal battle that could tie up $12.5 million in federal election money – the lifeblood of his Reform Party campaign.

Nader is campaigning on the cheap, too, though he says he will air $5 million in TV ads. And his name may not be on all 50 state ballots.

Targeting Nader voters, Gore recently adopted a populist us-vs.-them economic riff in his stump speech and is stressing his environmental record on several campaign stops, including one Saturday in Pittsburgh.

"One of two men – Al Gore or George Bush – is going to become president and only one of them, Al Gore, shares the ideals and issues of progressive voters," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane.

In Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington state and Wisconsin – all battleground states – recent polls show Nader tipping the balance to Bush. With help from Nader's 8 percent showing, Bush has closed the gap in California, a must-win state for Gore, according to last week's poll by Public Policy Institute.

The survey's director said Nader's support is clearly coming from Gore, with the vice president getting only half of all liberal voters. By contrast, Bush is supported by nine of 10 conservative voters.

Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said Nader's appeal on the West Coast is limited to white urban liberals – mostly older than 50 – who will eventually side with Gore if the race is close. Those voters know that supporting Nader would help elect Bush and "they will vote with their heads, not their hearts," he said.

Concern about Gore's commitment to environmental issues is driving the Nader boomlet in California, Oregon and Washington state.

"I've talked with some Democrats who feel the Democratic Party is letting them down on the environment and other issues," said Roxanna Swann, a 64-year-old retiree from Baker City, Ore.

In the industrial Midwest, analysts say Nader has benefited from the cooling of Gore's relationship with labor. He also seems to picking up the protest vote from people craving government reform.

"Ralph Nader is talking about things we all want to hear talked about," said Pocan, mentioning campaign finance reform.

Like Carrick in California, Midwest analysts say they suspect Nader will fade.

"Historically, the third- and fourth-party candidates tend to be stronger in the summer than the fall," said David Rohde, political science professor at Michigan State University. Even so, he said Nader is a threat.

"The conventional wisdom says the race will tighten up in Michigan. If that happens, every vote Nader gets could be consequential," Rohde said.

If she hadn't committed to Gore in February, Democratic delegate Julia Munoz Bradford says she would vote for Nader.

"He's not giving me the wishy-washy, soft feeling," said the 42-year-old Port Orchard, Wash., educator. "Nader has been around a long time and he's passionate."

"Nader is well-respected," said delegate Anthony Nunoz of Pueblo, Colo. "I'm not happy that he's running and taking votes away from Gore,"

"Votes for Nader could put Bush in the White House," said Bill Neiman, a high school history teacher from Kenosha, Wis. "It's a sobering thought for even die-hard Nader supporters."

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press