Monday, February 23, 2004

Democratic officials reacted with dismay, anger and talk of political retaliation yesterday after Ralph Nader announced his decision to run for president as an independent, which could rob thousands of critical votes from their party’s nominee.

Vowing to play political hardball with the Nader campaign, Florida Democratic Chairman Scott Maddox called Mr. Nader “the Benedict Arnold of modern democracy” and said he would look for ways to challenge and maybe block the liberal antibusiness gadfly’s attempts to get on the state ballot.

“We are going to be looking at [the state-ballot certification] process very closely as we go forward, very closely, to make sure he is following the law,” Mr. Maddox said in an interview with The Washington Times. “I would imagine that he will receive assistance in collecting signatures from Republican operatives so that he can pull votes away from our Democratic nominee,” Mr. Maddox said in an interview with The Washington Times.

“He is a spoiler in this race. He is moving to feed his own ego to the detriment of the nation,” he said.

As Mr. Nader made his presidential candidacy official today at a Washington news conference, other Democratic officials said they, too, were exploring all of their options in response to his entry into the race and did not rule out challenging his ballot petitions elsewhere in the country.

“At this point, it’s premature as to what we are going to do,” said the Democratic National Committee’s chief spokeswoman Debra DeShong. “It’s a whole new ballgame. It remains to be seen what kind of campaign he’s going to run.”

Asked whether the party was planning to take steps to challenge Mr. Nader’s efforts to get on major state ballots, Ms. DeShong would say only that “it’s much too early to be discussing situations like that.”

Democrats maintained yesterday that Mr. Nader probably would not do as well as he did in 2000 when he ran in nearly all 50 states on the Green Party ticket, winning enough votes in two pivotal states — New Hampshire and Florida — that cost Al Gore the presidency.

Democrats still blame Mr. Nader for undermining their chances in the 2000 election, especially in Florida where he won more than 97,000 votes in a state that President Bush narrowly carried by 537 votes in a disputed recount.

“I think Nader will get much less in 2004, because people will see through him,” Mr. Maddox said.

New Hampshire Democrats reacted similarly yesterday, remembering that although Mr. Bush won the state by 7,211 votes, Mr. Nader drew 22,198 votes that could have gone to Mr. Gore.

“We are obviously disappointed that he chose to run again. We need a new president, not a new third party. I don’t think there is the same base of support for him here this time,” said Pamela Walsh, spokesman for the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

In a separate political broadside against Mr. Nader, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) said, “We hope Democrats will finally adopt the approach that Nader so richly deserves — and ignore him altogether.”

“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 said.

“Democrats should leave Ralph Nader alone, on the margins of politics, where he belongs, and not let him unduly influence the case they take to the country next November,” the DLC added.

But other Democrats, such as Mr. Maddox, wondered to what degree Mr. Nader was being pushed by Republicans to take votes away from their nominee in November.

“We all know that Bush is one happy guy today. The White House has encouraged Nader through back channels. They would not be in the White House were it not for Ralph Nader,” said California Democratic spokesman Bob Mulholland.

It would take 153,000 signatures to get on the California ballot, “which means you would have to collect 225,000 signatures to play it safe. I think Republicans will make sure he is on the ballot,” Mr. Mulholland said. “But I don’t think we will pay any attention to him.”

Even so, some political strategists still think that Mr. Nader can cut into the Democratic vote in the fall, especially in major manufacturing states that have been hit hard by job losses.

“The landscape has shifted slightly here,” said Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger. “Trade issues, outsourcing and loss of manufacturing jobs are much larger issues now than in 2000.”

“Nader can come along and say that President Bush and Senator John Kerry are Tweedledum and Tweedledee on trade, that he is the only one who clearly has a different position and that these two other characters are two wings of the same bird of prey,” Mr. Ballenger said.

“This could pull some votes for Ralph,” he concluded.

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