Ralph Nader had big plans for his presidential campaign: an endorsement by the Green Party, a line on all 50 state ballots, a podium in the nationally televised debates. But with voters closely divided between the two major parties, minor candidates like Mr. Nader have had to settle for a lot less than they hoped for. The Greens gave Mr. Nader the cold shoulder. The Democrats hit him with a slew of lawsuits. And the Commission on Presidential Debates? They might give him a couple of tickets to the first match-up on Sept. 30-but they'll only get him into the hall, not onto the stage.
Mr. Nader's status as an observer at the debates could be a symbol for his entire campaign. Like the candidates from other third parties (Green, Libertarian, Constitution) he's been able to do little more than watch this year as the political parade passed him by.
That's a big difference from 2000, when Mr. Nader was lavished with attention from the news media and celebrities like Phil Donohue and Susan Sarandon. Though he received less than 3 percent of the vote nationally, Mr. Nader's 97,488 votes in Florida and 22,198 in New Hampshire probably cost the Democrats the election. (George W. Bush won by 7,211 votes in New Hampshire and by just 537 in Florida.)
Democrats are determined that won't happen again. They've challenged Mr. Nader's petitions across the country in an effort to keep him off the ballot in hotly contested states. Though a Florida judge ruled in Mr. Nader's favor on Sept. 17, he lost similar legal battles that same week in Arkansas and New Mexico, two other toss-up states. At a Sept. 21 press conference, he lashed out at the "gutless, spineless, clueless" Democrats who were costing him tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and preventing him from waging an active campaign. "The ballot access has drained our time and our resources," Mr. Nader told reporters. "I have to hold Sen. John Kerry and [Democratic Chairman] Terry McAuliffe directly responsible."
While Democrats are spending millions to fight Mr. Nader, Michael Peroutka, his counterpart on the right, has been largely ignored by Republicans. As the nominee of the Constitution Party, Mr. Peroutka's name is already on 37 state ballots, compared with 29 for Mr. Nader. By Election Day, "voters in 46 states representing 92 percent of Americans will have the opportunity to cast their ballot for Michael Anthony Peroutka for president," said Thom Holmes, a party official.
Free from Democratic lawsuits, the Constitution Party has been able to spend its limited resources on actual campaigning, rather than legal fees. (FEC reports show the party has raised $360,000, with about 60 percent coming from Mr. Peroutka himself.) John Lofton, the party's spokesman, promises targeted radio or television ads in states like Utah, Alabama, Colorado, and Pennsylvania.
"We're going into different hot spots around the country or spots where we think conservatives aren't terribly excited about Mr. Bush," Mr. Lofton told WORLD. "We're not going to areas just because they're battleground states."
But unlike the Green Party, which isn't campaigning in toss-up states, the Constitution Party is hardly shying away from contests considered too close to call. In must-win Pennsylvania, a CP ad shows a photo of President Bush with his arm around Sen. Arlen Specter, the liberal Republican lawmaker that conservatives love to hate. In Colorado, a toss-up state with a large immigrant population, the party is running ads blasting the president's proposal for an amnesty program. "Instead of 140,000 troops in Iraq," says one ad, "we ought to have these troops on our borders to stop this lawless invasion-and that's what we're facing, an invasion and an occupation."
Mr. Peroutka's "God, Family, Republic" campaign may not have broad appeal, but marginal candidates might turn an election that's decided at the margins. If a handful of states see elections as close as the one in 2000-534 votes in Florida, 366 in New Mexico-even minor-party candidates can have a major impact. With Mr. Nader off the ballot in several toss-up states where Mr. Peroutka has qualified, Republicans could wake up on Nov. 3 wishing they had taken the threat more seriously.
-With reporting from John Dawson