- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Democrats say George Bush wouldn’t be in the White House today if Ralph Nader had not run for president in 2000, and there is a lot of truth to that claim.

They also say Mr. Nader’s plan to get on the ballot again this year, this time as an independent, will get a lot of help from Republicans who want him to do to John Kerry what he did to Al Gore. And there’s a lot of truth to that, too. Republicans will eagerly line up to sign Mr. Nader’s ballot petitions in as many states as possible — from Maine to California.

Mr. Nader, who ran for president on the Green Party ticket, eroded the Democratic vote just enough in 2000 to tip key states into the Republican column, giving Mr. Bush the microscopic electoral margin he needed to beat Bill Clinton’s mercurial vice president.

The far-left, anti-capitalist crusader, who nonetheless made a bundle in in the stock market boom of the 1990s when no one was looking, won 2.6 percent of the vote last time. That tells you how popular his ideas were.

But Mr. Nader was able to win 97,488 votes in Florida. If those votes had gone to Mr. Gore, even a small portion of them, Mr. Bush — who won the state by 537 votes — would have lost Florida and the election.

A similar situation occurred in New Hampshire, where Mr. Bush beat Mr. Gore by only 7,211 votes while Mr. Nader won 22,198 votes — many of which could have gone to Mr. Gore had Mr. Nader not run.

Needless to say, Democrats are outraged over Mr. Nader’s decision to run again, and there are threats of political warfare to block his attempts to get his name on the ballot.

Each state sets its own rules on ballot applications and the certification process and it can be brutally complicated and bureaucratic — a legal and political obstacle course hostile to independent candidacies. Top Democratic officials tell me there will be legal and procedural challenges lodged against Mr. Nader’s ballot petitions wherever possible.

One of them is Florida Democratic Chairman Scott Maddox, who told me this week that Mr. Nader will encounter some heavy opposition when he tries to get on the Florida ballot.

Mr. Maddox, a student of political hardball, thinks Mr. Nader is acting in “his own self-interest and feeding his own ego to the detriment of the nation.”

“He reminds me of another American who had done great things for his country in the past but then decided to act in his own self-interest rather than in the country’s interests. Ralph Nader is the Benedict Arnold of modern democracy,” he said.

What can Mr. Nader’s campaign expect to encounter in Florida this time around? “We are going to be looking at [the ballot certification process] very closely as we go forward, very closely. I would imagine that he will receive assistance in collecting signatures from Republican operatives so they can pull votes away from the Democratic nominee,” he said.

Mr. Maddox is not off on an independent stop-Nader strategy of his own making here. This appears to be the emerging plan at the Democratic National Committee and the Kerry campaign.

When I pointedly asked DNC chief spokesman Debra DeShong if the party planned to challenge Nader’s efforts to get on the ballot in key states, she did not react negatively.

“At this point, it’s premature as to what we are going to do. It’s much too early to be discussing situations like that,” she said.

But this is in fact what Democrats at the party’s highest levels are talking about. “Nader robbed us of one election. We’re not going to let him do it to us again,” one party official told me.

A state-by-state guerrilla war against Mr. Nader might be what many party leaders have in mind, but the Democratic Leadership Council is urging a strategy of benign neglect.

“We hope Democrats will finally adopt the approach that Nader so richly deserves — and ignore him altogether,” the DLC said this week in a political broadside against him.

“Nader’s only real hope for relevance in 2004 is that panicky Democrats will urge their nominee to run as hard and far to the left as possible in order to minimize his vote … and Democrats should not make it come true for Nader,” the DLC analysis said.

DLC officials believe leaving Mr. Nader alone will leave him “on the margin of politics where he belongs.” But three years ago the Democrats learned elections can be won or lost on the margins, and that’s where Mr. Nader exerts his greatest strength.

In 2000, the U.S. economy was still in good shape and Mr. Nader’s far-left, antitrade, anti-corporate tirades had only a limited potential. This year, however, his message could have a much bigger impact in battleground states like Michigan and Ohio where the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs is a much bigger issue.

All those angry Dean Democrats, who cannot forgive Mr. Kerry’s votes for the North American Free Trade Agreement and other free trade pacts, could become Nader voters this fall and pave the way for Mr. Bush’s second term.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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