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Ralph Nader: John Kerry's Nemesis?

This column from The Weekly Standard was written by Matthew Continetti.

It had all the trappings of an international summit. By the time Ralph Nader visited Senator John Kerry at the Democrat's campaign headquarters on May 19, the meeting had been hyped for days. Washington salivated in anticipation. Reporters huddled outside Kerry HQ looked as though they had been transported miraculously to Yalta, 1945, waiting patiently for Roosevelt to shake hands with Stalin.

The Washington summit wasn't as cozy as Yalta. Photos show the tall, ragged Nader shaking hands with the tall, blow-dried Kerry. Look at them and you see Nader wearing a plaintive, satisfied look on his face. Not Kerry. His eyes are open wide, and his smile exaggerated, frozen in place. The man looks scared.

Here's why. When Nader entered the race this year, he had little money, little support, and no ballot access. His name wasn't on the ballot in a single state, which was a far cry from 2000, when he was on the ballot in 43 states and Washington, DC. But on May 13 the Reform party endorsed and explicitly nominated Nader, which could put him on the ballot in seven states, including Florida. Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, says that because the Reform party is in shambles, it's more likely the party's nomination will put Nader on the ballot in just three states: Mississippi, where the Reform party's national chairman, Sean O'Hara, resides; Colorado, where anyone can get on the ballot for $500; and Florida.

And you can probably add Texas to that list. Nader has sued the state for unfair ballot access laws. In Texas, independent presidential candidates need 64,000 signatures to get on the ballot. This week Nader campaign staff delivered 80,045 signatures to the Texas statehouse. The problem is that they were two weeks late. Nader's suit, which would strike down the May 10 deadline and get Nader on the Texas ballot, is pending, with a hearing scheduled for July. Experts say it's likely Nader will win.

Nader has the Green party to fall back on, too. Both Peter Camejo in California and Carol Miller in New Mexico, powerful Green party members, want their party to nominate Nader. We'll know if they're successful sometime between June 24 and 28, when the Green party holds its convention in Milwaukee. A Green party nomination would give Nader ballot access in at least 23 states. "It would take half the load off" the Nader campaign, Winger says.

"The press tends to think it's harder than it is" to get on the ballot, he adds. A libertarian presidential candidate was on the ballot in all 50 states in 1992, 1996, and 2000. In 1988 Lenora Fulani and the New Alliance party was on the ballot in all 50 states. And Ross Perot was on all 50 ballots in 1992 and 1996.

Right now Nader is focused on ballot access in the most difficult states. That will change. "They've been totally ignoring the easy states," Winger says. It only takes 800 signatures to get on the ballot in New Jersey, for example. In Tennessee it's 275. Arkansas, 1,000. "There's going to be a huge increase" once Nader shifts his focus to these states.

Nader does have one problem. He doesn't have much money. According to the FEC, as of April 30 Nader had raised $1,178,947 for his independent run. But he's also spent $1,302,841. Plus, he's $24,950 in debt. Which leaves him with $181,345 in cash on hand.

But compare that number with what Nader had in 2000. Reports filed with the FEC show that Nader had $67,189.47 in cash on hand as of April 30, 2000. In other words, Nader is in better financial shape this year.

He can take additional solace from the polls. In a March Newsweek poll, 12 percent of 18-29 year olds said they preferred Nader over either a Republican or Democrat. An April poll showed Nader running at 8 percent in Pennsylvania, up from 7 percent in March. A May Fox News poll had Nader at 3 percent, with Kerry and Bush tied 40-40. But this week's Quinnipiac poll has Nader at 6 percent. Also, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of registered voters also had Nader at 6 percent, down from 7 percent at the beginning of the month. Those numbers, too, are similar to Nader's in 2000. An April 2000 Gallup poll had Nader at 4 percent, for example.

(The Nader poll number that has changed significantly from 2000, incidentally, is his favorable/unfavorable rating. In April 2000 Gallup showed Nader with a 41 percent favorable rating and a 20 percent unfavorable rating. But an April 2004 CBS poll shows Nader with only an 11 percent favorable rating and a 31 percent unfavorable.)

All in all, it's not a bad situation for Nader. And yet skeptics like to dismiss his influence this year. They remind us that Nader polled at 6-7 percent up until Election Day 2000, but ended up with less than 3 percent of the national vote. The skeptics miss the point. Nader's less than 3 percent of the national vote in 2000 might have cost Gore the election. So it's no surprise the cognoscenti saw last week's summit as a sign that the Kerry campaign was worried about Nader's influence this year. That Nader is performing about as well as he was at this point in 2000 gives Democrats reason to worry.

Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

By Matthew Continetti

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