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WASHINGTON — In this year's presidential race, some Republicans are putting their organizing muscle and money into the candidate they believe may most affect the outcome: independent Ralph Nader.
The Michigan Republican Party gathered 43,000 signatures to put Nader on the ballot there. A Massachusetts businessman who has served as one of President Bush's top fundraisers, Richard Egan, has given $2,000 to the Nader campaign. So have his son and daughter-in-law.
In Nevada, a prominent GOP political consultant helped raise money for a Nader petition drive. Republican activists also have lent a hand or said they would help Nader in Oregon, Arizona, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida.
"I've never seen this in my life," says Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, which tracks minor parties. "I don't think it's ever happened in history that a major party has gone out and completed a petition for an independent candidate for president."
Nader says he has not solicited Republican help and has had "nothing to do with" GOP efforts to get him on state ballots.
President Bush's campaign and the Republican National Committee also deny the efforts are coordinated. They say local activists are trying to expand voter choices in November. State and local Republicans agree, even as they admit their underlining aim is to take away progressive support for John Kerry in close states.
"This is such a natural and logical thing for people to do at the grass roots. It's no surprise," says Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist who is advising the Bush campaign. "I assume people are doing it for purely tactical reasons."
Democrats subscribe to the same divide-and-conquer theory. They are mobilizing to keep Nader off ballots and convince his former supporters that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.
Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court has scheduled a hearing next week on a court challenge to Nader's candidacy there. The plaintiffs in the case, who were aided by Democratic Party lawyers, contend thousands of the 47,000 signatures Nader filed to get onto the state's ballot are invalid.
Many Democrats still seethe over the 2000 election results when, in their view, Nader siphoned off liberal votes and contributed to Al Gore's pivotal defeat in Florida. The vice president lost the state by 537 votes while Nader polled more than 97,000.
Nader won 2.7% of votes nationwide in 2000, when he was on the ballot in 43 states and the District of Columbia. He hopes to be on as many ballots this time but has given up trying in Arizona, Indiana, Oklahoma and Georgia.
Republican help "makes perfect sense based on what happened in 2000. Democrats and Republicans think that the party that will benefit most from a strong Nader showing is the Republican Party," says Thomas Holbrook, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Nader denies he hurt Gore and says his aim now is to oust Bush. He says he will pull more Republicans than Democrats to his column. "We have lost our liberal Democratic support," he says.
Perhaps, but some Republicans are betting there are enough left-wing voters who, if given the chance, would pull the lever for the anti-war, anti-corporate Nader. That could tip crucial electoral votes to Bush. Some GOP efforts:
• The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions, says nearly 13% of Nader's contributions of $200 or more have come from prominent GOP donors or their families.
• In Oregon, the anti-tax group Citizens for a Sound Economy waged an e-mail and phone campaign to get Republicans to a state nominating convention. Recorded messages told of "an opportunity we have to drive a wedge through the liberal left's base of support. In this year's presidential race, Ralph Nader could peel away a lot of Kerry support in Oregon, but he has to be on the ballot first."
• Steve Wark, a Las Vegas political strategist and former state GOP chairman, solicited friends and colleagues to get Nader on the ballot. "It's important that there be a third-party candidate," he says, adding, "I'm hoping it increases George Bush's margin in Nevada."
Arkansas, Nevada, New Jersey and South Dakota are so far the only states where Nader has secured a ballot spot. His failure in June to win the Green Party's nomination deprived him of ballot slots in 22 states. And while he has won the endorsement of the Reform Party, he still must convince local parties in seven states to put him on their lines.
A split in the Michigan Reform Party has cast doubt on whether Nader will get its ballot line. With 17 electoral votes, Michigan is a closely contested state in the election. A recent Zogby poll shows that 12% of the state's large Arab-American community supports the Lebanese Nader. The state Republican Party on its own gathered 43,000 petition signatures to make sure Nader's name is listed.
Michigan GOP spokesman Matt Davis says he collected signatures for Nader even though he "categorically" disagrees with him on virtually every issue. "I told people, 'You don't have to vote for him, but having more people on the ballot is a good thing,' " he said.
Nader says his campaign does "not accept organized political support," and he expects to appear on the Reform line in Michigan. But his campaign has sent mixed signals on whether it will use the petitions if it fails to get the Reform ballot slot.
Overall, Nader is unapologetic. He refuses to give back GOP money. "We accept contributions from individuals who are American citizens and within (federal election) rules, regardless of their political background," he says. "The Democratic fat cats and the Republican fat cats give to each other's parties because they're playing both sides of the aisle in case the other ones win. So it's amusing to see Democrats complain" about GOP donations to an independent.
Contributing: Wire reports