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America, of course, is not San Francisco writ large, but that should be little comfort to Kerry. Beyond the punditocracy, Nader's actual numbers show anything but an erosion of support. In a case of déjà vu, last week's American Research Group poll of Florida voters gave Bush 46 percent, Kerry 45 percent, and Nader 3 percent. A national Gallup poll for CNN gave Nader four percent of all likely voters, while a concurrent ABC-Washington Post survey put the civic gadfly at six percent across the country. Even if those results are inflated, it's worth remembering that Nader's impactful Election Day 2000 tally was only 2.74 percent of the electorate.
"In the last election he helped defeat the man who wrote Earth in the Balance, in favor of the candidate who wants to drill in the Arctic refuge," fumes Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox. "I hope he doesn't make the same mistake again."
Maddox may want to brace himself: The Green Party remains sharply divided on tactical grounds about carrying Nader's banner this time out (a decision to be finalized at its June national convention), but the Reform Party (headed by conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan in 2000) has already offered up its ballot line. And while Nader has made overtures to both camps, he's simultaneously gathering signatures to put his own newborn Populist Party on the ballot in key states.
"If a multiple number of parties endorse him, he's comfortable with that," explains Nader spokesman Kevin Zeese. "He has multiple choices for Florida. Hewill be on the ballot in Florida."
That declaration leaves Maddox downright exasperated: "Ralph Nader has broken faith with his own supporters. This year he does not represent a particular party or point of view, but is instead running for his own aggrandizement."
Ralph Nader has heard all this before. "Oh, so a Democrat has some criticism of me?" he sneers as Kulchur repeats Maddox's comments to him. "The more that people like Maddox go after our candidacy, the more they're telling us how decadent and decrepit the Democratic Party is. Why doesn't Scott direct his attention to the five million people who've already told pollsters they want to vote for our candidacy?" Nader continues, citing his campaign's internal data. "I would advise Scott Maddox to pay attention to the 250,000 registered Democrats in Florida who in 2000 voted for George W. Bush, instead of whining about the right of all Americans to run for political office."
If Nader sounds unusually confident, almost cocky, it may be that he knows time is on his side. The war in Iraq will be his wedge issue, he agrees. And his call for removing all U.S. troops in six months will clearly delineate him from both Bush and Kerry. "If the Iraqis see that there's going to be a pullout," Nader says of his peace plan, "more mainstream Iraqis will split off from the insurgents in huge numbers." He also wants U.S. contractors to leave, with truck-driving jobs going to unemployed and "resentful" Iraqis, not Americans. "We've got to let the Iraqis know that there's a plan for complete withdrawal, not building fourteen military bases and in effect dominating Iraq through a puppet regime."
Such a peace-in-our-time approach seems more likely to abandon the Iraqi people to the slender mercies of mullah rule, yet its simplicity is one that many antiwar activists find appealing. Meanwhile Kerry's refusal to cut and run from Iraq, his willingness to add even more troops if necessary, may be reassuring to those, like Kulchur, who see Iraq's democratic reconstruction as crucial in the larger struggle against radical Islamism -- regardless of Bush's original intentions or apparent machinations. But Kerry's stance is nothing short of maddening to the Baghdad-equals-Saigon crowd. This latter group may never grow past a shrill minority, but then Nader hardly needs to persuade a mass following. As he demonstrated in 2000, 2.7 percent of the voters will work just fine.
With that formula in mind, Donna Brazile, Gore's 2000 campaign manager, recently sent a public letter to Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, practically begging her to "sit down with Nader right away before he siphons off progressive support that they need to win crucial battleground states." If a job with the Kerry administration is untenable, Brazile suggests, then at least proffer "advise and consent" power over appointments to the Food and Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency -- whatever it takes to get Nader on board.
Some of Howard Dean's former staffers have gone one better, alleging that a West Wing employment offer is the true motivation behind Nader's entire candidacy. Speaking to the New York Daily News last week, former Dean strategist Paul Maslin said Nader had appeared ready to shelve his third-party bid in exchange for the vice presidential slot on a Dean ticket. In early December 2003, Maslin recalled Nader arriving at the Dean campaign headquarters in Vermont with several of his aides in tow. "It looks like you're going to get the nomination," Maslin remembers Nader saying during a private meeting. Nader then touted his own third-party presidential run as a strategic benefit to Dean -- "I'll be protecting your flank" -- before pausing to let one of his aides pointedly ask, "Has the governor given any thought to who he will name as his running mate?"