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Gore's Worst Nightmare?

While most voters' attentions are focused on front-runners George W. Bush and Al Gore, the difference in the presidential race could turn out to be an also-ran: Green Party nominee Ralph Nader. And that could spell trouble for Democrat Gore.

Nader, the longtime consumer gadfly and environmental activist, is polling in the low single digits in most national polls. But those few points could tilt the vote in favor of Republican Bush in several hotly contested states, including Oregon, Washington state, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Maine. Those states - worth a combined total of 66 electoral votes (270 are needed to capture the White House) - all backed the Clinton-Gore ticket in the last two presidential elections, and political analysts agree that most of Nader's support is coming at Gore's expense.

(In the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, 4 percent of voters favored Nader, compared to 44 percent for Bush, 42 percent for Gore and 1 percent for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.)

Pollster John Zogby thinks Nader could be a real headache for the Democrats.

"Gore has a problem. In addition to not getting his message through, the difference in this race right now is Ralph Nader," said Zogby.

"If Gore moves to the left with a populist message, he risks losing ground in the vital center. If he moves to the center he will watch Nader's support increase," he said.

The Gore campaign is taking serious notice of the Nader threat and is increasing efforts to cast him as a spoiler. Gore campaign chairman William Daley told The Washington Post that Nader "could swing the vote to Bush." But Daley expressed hope that with the race so tight, "people who were more willing to vote for Nader when it was a runaway [in their states] will realize that their votes are important."

In the Pacific Northwest, a hotbed of Nader support, Gore has retooled his message to appeal to environmentalists, many of whom are rejecting him in favor of Nader.

In a Sunday night speech in Portland, Ore., squarely aimed at Nader-leaning voters, Gore addressed a series of environmental issues important to people in the region: the protection of old-growth forests, whether to allow roads to be built in wilderness areas, and how to save salmon.

"Nowhere are the differences between me and Gov. Bush clearer than on the environment," Gore told the crowd.

Some Greens are buying that argument and shifting their support to Gore.

"Greens should vote strategically, not angrily," said Don St. Clair, 40, of Eugene, Ore., a member of Greens For Gore, a group that's trying to persuade environmentalists not to abandon Gore for Nader.

"We believe that once Al Gore is no longer shackled to Bill Clinton, we're going to see him keep the promises he made in his book Earth In The Balance," St. Clair said.

Even a group of oe-time Nader colleagues is calling on him to rethink his campaign, because he could cost Gore the election.

Over the weekend, twelve former "Nader's Raiders" urged Nader to drop out of the White House race in states where Gore and Bush are locked in close battles.

But Nader rejected their pleas, repeating his contention that there's really no difference between the two major parties, and insisting that he's in the race until the end.

"I think they're well-intentioned but frightened liberals who sided with the lesser of two evils," Nader said of the dozen, who call themselves "Nader's Raiders for Gore."

"That's quite a choice for the American people, between the bad Democratic Party and the worse Republicans," he said. "I think we need a better choice than that."

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