Out to Create a Two-Man Race

Jeffrey Cohn, a 31-year-old accountant and Ralph Nader fan, smiles as he implores shoppers streaming from a suburban Philadelphia Wal-Mart to sign his petition. An hour into the effort, Cohn has persuaded 20 people to back the move to get Nader on the Pennsylvania ballot as an independent Presidential candidate. But when the store’s assistant manager objects, Cohn heads to another mall.

The scene is being repeated on sidewalks and parking lots across America as the Nader campaign scrambles to meet late-summer filing deadlines to get on some 33 state ballots. But Democrats are gearing up to fight back just as hard, fearing a repeat of 2000. Then, Nader siphoned enough votes from Al Gore in extremely tight races in Florida and New Hampshire to tip the election to George W. Bush.

This time, Democrats are leaving nothing to chance. In Pennsylvania, Dems are mounting a court challenge to Nader’s petitions. Nationally, they’ve assigned Vermont Governor Howard Dean the task of persuading wayward Democrats that a vote for Nader is tantamount to a vote for Bush. Dean has declared “an extraordinary emergency” and his forces are packing some Nader events with protesters.

GOP HELP. Democrats have already successfully knocked Nader off the ballot in Arizona on technicalities, and the party faithful are quietly fund-raising to support additional legal challenges in the battleground states of Florida, Michigan, West Virginia, and Nevada. “We can’t afford to have Ralph Nader in the race,” says Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Republicans, on the other hand, have rallied to Nader’s aid. Conservative groups, such as the antitax Citizens for a Sound Economy, helped collect ballot signatures in Oregon and Nevada. And the GOP collected 42,000 signatures to place Nader on the ballot in Michigan, where Kerry leads Bush by just two percentage points in a three-way race.

For Republicans, the math is easy: Three of every four Nader votes are expected to come from Kerry’s hide. Meanwhile, Nader refuses to turn away Republican money or volunteers and has demanded that Kerry stop his party’s efforts to exclude him from the race. “It shows the lack of confidence Democrats have in their own candidate,” says Nader.

IN A CLOSE RACE… The GOP rally-’round-Nader has freed Democrats to be more open about their counter-ballot efforts, lessening the risk that they’ll be tarred as anti-democratic. In Philadelphia, attorney Gregory Harvey is investigating reports that homeless people hired to collect signatures at $1 each have been forging names on Nader petitions. Under election rules, Harvey has just a week to compare computerized voter registration records to the 25,865 petitions Nader must submit by the Aug. 2 deadline. Nader forces calculate they’ll need at least 40,000 signatures to survive a legal challenge, but admit they are behind in the attempt.

Given the challenges to Nader’s ballot petitions and his decision to forego a place on the Green Party ticket, Nader is unlikely to receive the 2.88 million votes he won in 2000. But in a close race, a few thousand votes his way in key states could once again determine the winner. Reason enough for neither Democrats nor Republicans to take the Nader factor for granted.

Magnusson is a correspondent in BusinessWeek’s Washington bureau