Democrats wrestle with Nader

BBC, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A foot soldier in the Nader 2004 campaign, Mike McCallister is stationed at the gates to the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee.

Kitted out in a bright orange T-shirt emblazoned with badges, he tries to get the attention of the visitors streaming in.

“Do you want to sign a petition to get Ralph Nader on the ballot in Wisconsin?” he asks.

The allure of cream puffs and the fair’s highlight – pig races – mean many ignore the pitch for the veteran consumer rights campaigner.

But the yellow petition forms are slowly filling up and Mr Nader looks likely to get the 2,000 signatures he needs by the state deadline of 7 September to earn a place on the presidential ballot in Wisconsin.

There is no national ballot for the presidential election – each US state has its own.

‘Replace Bush’

Kimberley Blaeser, who has brought her children to the fair to see the farm animals, does not want Mr Nader on her ballot.

She favours the idea of there being more than two parties.

“But this time I feel it’s kind of urgent that we replace [President] Bush. Let’s just get [Democratic candidate John] Kerry in office and keep working on the political system in the years to come,” the university professor says.

She is one of the more than 94,000 Wisconsinites who voted for Mr Nader in 2000.

Democrats argue they squeezed Al Gore’s margin of victory in the state to under 6,000 votes.

Elsewhere, they claim Nader votes tipped other battlegrounds, including Florida, to George W Bush.

Kimberley now regrets her choice and has pledged her loyalty to the Anyone But Bush candidate.

But Republicans think this year the Nader factor could help turn Wisconsin red.

Some recent polls show a narrow Kerry lead in a two-man race would be cut to a dead heat with Mr Nader in the ring.

Conservative support

Grassroots conservatives are ready to offer Mr Nader a helping hand.

“If people ask, should I sign the petition? I encourage people to sign the petition… I’d encourage people to send e-mails to their friends,” says Cameron Sholty, Wisconsin organiser for Freedomworks, a tax-cutting pressure group.

“If we know that they’ll be collecting signatures some place I would certainly encourage my membership to approach them and go sign the petitions.

“We know Ralph Nader is ueber-liberal. John Kerry’s voting record in the Senate would indicate that he is as liberal as Ralph Nader.

“By having Nader on the ballot it shows voters in Wisconsin John Kerry’s true record and what could, conceivably, be his intent,” he adds.

But this has only fired up the Democrats’ anti-Nader camp.

Strategy plans to run a TV advert ahead of the Wisconsin ballot deadline, accusing Mr Nader of hypocrisy for accepting Republican dollars and in-kind support.

Other groups have lawyers primed to pounce on false signatures and addresses which would allow them to challenge the petitions.

The strategy has worked elsewhere, keeping Mr Nader off the ballot in Arizona, and each challenge siphons vital funds from Mr Nader’s coffers.

[Mr Kerry’s] lifetime voting record for protecting workers’ rights, protecting the environment, consumer safety issues is actually very good
George Twigg,
Kerry campaign spokesman
It has frustrated Nader supporters.

“The most telling thing about the Nader campaign is that the Democrats are not democratic – they don’t support his right to be on the ballot,” argues Bill Linville, who co-ordinates Mr Nader’s Wisconsin campaign.

He rejects criticism of the Nader movement’s accepting conservative support.

“The fact that some Republicans might sign a petition for whatever reason doesn’t mean they’re part of our campaign.”

For now, Kerry campaign volunteers are presuming there will be three men on the ballot.

As they work through phone lists of potential voters they ask each one: “If you had to vote today for president, would you vote for John Kerry, George Bush or Ralph Nader?”

Strong or airy-fairy?

“[Mr Kerry’s] lifetime voting record for protecting workers’ rights, protecting the environment, consumer safety issues – issues Ralph Nader talks a lot about and his supporters talk a lot about – is actually very good,” says George Twigg, spokesman for Mr Kerry’s Wisconsin campaign, putting the argument used against potential Naderites.

“When George Bush wanted to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, John Kerry was the first person who stood up on the floor of the Senate and said he would filibuster any bill that had that provision in it,” he cites as an example.

That Democrats are making the case for Mr Kerry as a progressive suggests the Nader factor is already at work and conservatives may have partly achieved their aim.

This election is dominated by national security and the Democrats want swing voters to see Mr Kerry as strong commander-in-chief, not an airy-fairy liberal.

In Wisconsin, poised on a presidential knife-edge, the dedication of the Nader campaigners – and their right-wing helpers – could prove decisive.

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