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To Gore, He's Darth Nader — and Dangerous

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MICHAEL CAULFIELD/AP

Ralph Nader walks off stage after a campaign speech in Orange, Ca.

Ralph Nader meets the litmus test for a true gadfly candidate: He doesn't give a crap if he spoils the election for one of the main combatants. With two weeks to go in what is currently Al Gore's oh-so-slightly uphill battle against George W. Bush, Nader, according to the Washington Post, is pulling enough support in six traditionally Democratic states — Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Maine — to tip those battlegrounds and their 61 electoral college votes to Bush. Along with the election.

Does Nader have pangs of conscience about taking food off the plate of what he calls the "bad Democratic party" and passing it to the "worse Republicans"? Nah. This renegade isn't Jesse Jackson, he isn't Bill Bradley, and he isn't John McCain: The revolution will not turn into an endorsement. In fact, recognizing that the Gore camp is where the votes are, Nader has hammered Gore far worse than Bush, sounding the theme of the marginalized liberal: betrayal.

"George W. Bush we can dismiss with a summary comment: nothing more than a corporation disguised as a human being," Nader said last week in California. As for Gore, "there's no end to his betrayal.... The only difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock."

Nader's even ignoring a dozen former "Nader's Raiders," who last week urged their former leader to drop out of the race in states where he has a chance of influencing the outcome. "I think they're well-intentioned but frightened liberals who sided with the lesser of two evils," he said at an Oakland rally Saturday. "This is a 50-state campaign."

Where is Nader's support coming from? Environmentalists, unions, WTO-haters and a smidge of the McCain vote. Nader's broth of anti-business populism makes Gore's taste like pre-election dishwater; and its appeal spills over neatly to angry idealists on the trade, environmental and campaign finance reform fronts. It's not quite enough to make a movement, and hardly the face of a new New Democratľism — Gore is already about as far to the left as he can afford to go — but the experts seem to agree the Nader vote is coming right out of Gore's slice of the electoral pie.

Is there a viable third party in our future? Without Nader, the Green party would be its usual invisible self; with him, it's forever limited to Nader's stubbornly limited appeal. Nader makes a great gadfly, just as Buchanan once did, but as a crusader he's too retro to light any lasting fires. In the New Economy, unions make lousy martyrs. And if there's anything politically viable in the Nader portfolio besides personality and dissatisfaction, the two major parties will soon do what major parties do — swallow it up and claim it for their own. (Anybody else want to thank Ross Perot for making fiscal discipline popular again?)

For Gore, the threat could fade. Nader, charging hard to meet that 5 percent cutoff for federal funding of his Green party vehicle for the next go-round, is indeed concentrating on popular-vote-heavy, solidly Gore states like New York and California where a liberal can throw his vote away without care for the consequences. And the Gore team, as it heads into the homestretch with an issue-a-day strategy, hopes that the issue-minded will realize that Gore's positions are close enough for comfort to Nader's — and that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. (Super-liberals Ted Kennedy, Paul Wellstone and Russ Feingold have already volunteered to pitch in.)

But Nader's already done to Gore what Buchanan (now polling under 1 percent nationally) was supposed to do to Bush: run a visible enough third-party campaign to exploit a fault line. He may have borrowed an environmental party to run what's essentially a pro-union campaign, but he's got the charisma and outlaw cred to get a slice of both of those constituencies, plus the WTO-haters and some Perot disaffecteds in the bargain. Which could be just enough to win the 2000 presidential election.

For Bush, that is. Which, of course, would give Nader lots to complain about in 2004.