Ralph Picks Up a Brand-New Cheering Section: The GOP

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Monday night football fans in Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon are in for a little surprise next week. Viewers in those key states will be treated to a new rash of pro-Ralph Nader ads, courtesy of none other than the Republican Leadership Council.

The RLC, a moderate GOP group with no direct ties to George W. Bush's campaign, has financed and produced a television spot showcasing Ralph Nader's speech at Wednesday's National Press Club dinner, in which the Green party candidate lashes out at Al Gore's record. The actual speech was equally hard on Bush, but the ad, which the RLC hopes will push waffling Nader/Gore voters back toward the third-party candidate, is purely anti-Gore. Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon, once considered safe for Gore, have showed recent gains by both Nader and Bush. The Gore campaign has also seen Nader take a serious bite out of their lead in California, where the Democrats' margin has steadily dwindled from double- to single-digit territory.

Back in Texas, the Bush camp is reportedly a bit uneasy about the ads, apparently recognizing the potential for anti-GOP backlash when voters realize who's actually behind the spots. The ad-makers were very careful to camouflage the spot's Republican roots — a fact that may leave wavering voters feeling bamboozled once they've gotten the whole story.

GOP fears over this ad pale in comparison to the Dems' Nader woes, however: Once a vague menace to the Gore/Lieberman ticket, the Nader candidacy has metamorphosed into a very serious threat, and the news media is paying close attention, even delivering a few raps to Ralph's knuckles: The editorial board at the New York Times has ramped up its ongoing criticism of Nader's stubborn campaign, accusing the candidate of reckless egotism and political obtuseness.

In recent weeks, Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman have begun an all-out crusade to sway voters away from Nader, arguing that in closely contested states, a vote for the Green party could ultimately result in a Bush victory. If Nader continues to gain support in key Democratic states, they maintain, he could tip the electoral vote balance in Bush's favor.

But to the unending frustration of Democratic strategists, Nader supporters have proven remarkably loyal, and many see their vote for the third party as a critical symbolic gesture, capable of altering a political landscape utterly dominated by the two-party system.