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Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader, shown here during a July 4 appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Consumer advocate and presidential candidate Ralph Nader debates former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean Friday afternoon, over the role and influence of third parties in politics. In 2000, Minnesota voters gave Nader one of his strongest showings, enough to propel the Greens to major party status here. His supporters say they'll continue that fight this year -- but other progressive voters say Nader's candidacy could undermine Democrat John Kerry, and ultimately benefit the Republican ticket.
St. Paul, Minn. — In 2000, Nader captured just over 5 percent of the vote in Minnesota, giving the Green Party an automatic spot on the state ballot this year. But since Nader chose not to seek the Green nomination and the party declined to endorse him at its national convention last month, his supporters will have to work to earn him a place on the ballot.
That's Danene Provencher's job. Provencher, who considers herself a Green Party member, says the effort is drawing support from all corners.
"We have Green Party members. We have nine student coordinators. Independents -- people who worked on Jesse Ventura's campaign," says Provencher. "I've even talked with Democrats that are not happy with placing their vote to Kerry, (and) Republicans that care about clean air and water, and the future of their children also."
In Minnesota, Nader needs just under 2,000 signatures by mid-September to qualify for the ballot. That's a far lower threshold than in some states -- like Texas, which required more than 80,000 signatures. Provencher says the goal should present no problems.
For us to make any advances in these issues that (the Greens) are bringing to the public's attention, we need to get rid of Bush. And the only way to do that is for people to cross party lines in swing states and to support John Kerry.
- Sarah Newman, founder of Greens for Kerry
But lingering doubts about the last election might. Many Democrats and progressive interest groups blame Nader for the outcome of the 2000 election, arguing his candidacy split votes on the left and installed George Bush in the White House.
Sarah Newman doesn't accept that analysis. But Newman, who founded the group Greens for Kerry, says this year's stakes are too high to take chances. Newman voted for Nader in 1996 and 2000, and has worked on his previous campaigns. She says she still believes in Nader's opposition to the war in Iraq, his environmental stewardship, and his commitment to social justice. But she says those very ideals would be undermined by another Bush victory.
"For us to make any advances in these issues that they are bringing to the public's attention, we need to get rid of Bush. And the only way to do that is for people to cross party lines in swing states and to support John Kerry," says Newman.
Greens for Kerry is targeting swing states, including Minnesota, to encourage Greens and Nader supporters to align with the Democrats this fall. And DFLers say they're ready to reach out to those who supported Nader last time.
But Provencher says Democrats also seem ready to play hardball if necessary. In Arizona, for example, Democrats contested the more than 14,000 signatures the Nader campaign had compiled to get on the ballot. Last week, Nader supporters acknowledged they were unlikely to prevail and withdrew the petitions. DFL State Chair Mike Erlandson says Minnesota Democrats will also examine signature lists in this state.
"Ultimately, Ralph Nader will not be on the ballot in Arizona because of the scrutiny -- and appropriate scrutiny -- by the Democratic Party," says Erlandson. "I think that's part of the political process. That's fair game."
Erlandson says that's standard practice in any campaign. What's not standard, he says, is the attempt by some conservative interests to help put Nader on the ballot. In Oregon and Wisconsin, the anti-tax group Citizens for a Sound Economy has encouraged members to sign Nader petitions. The group has no organized presence in Minnesota -- and a spokeman for the Minnesota GOP says Republicans don't feel any need to meddle in the Nader campaign.
And what, finally, of the Green Party? The party has nominated California attorney David Cobb, who'll need to break the 5 percent mark in Minnesota in order for the Greens to maintain major party status. That's a tall order in any year, but even more difficult with party members variously supporting Cobb, Nader, and Kerry. State Chair Nick Raleigh says he's not worried about a splintered vote.
"We've come to grips with the idea that even the 5 percent threshold might be out of reach," says Raleigh. "But we do know that in our local campaigns we are growing support, that we're winning the trust of voters, that we're getting candidates groomed and ready to serve in public office."
Raleigh says major party status is not as crucial in the local races where Green candidates perform best.