'Green wedge' blocks Gore's way to presidency

A vote for Ralph Nader is not a vote for Bush, say the adverts. But in eight swing states, those votes could make all the difference
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The Independent US

He has a single-track message, he heads a party with almost no national pedigree and he is a dreadful orator, but this is a man who suddenly finds himself with untold power in the US presidential election. Ralph Nader of the Green Party may be about to determine who takes the White House.

He has a single-track message, he heads a party with almost no national pedigree and he is a dreadful orator, but this is a man who suddenly finds himself with untold power in the US presidential election. Ralph Nader of the Green Party may be about to determine who takes the White House.

The claim may seem exaggerated when you ponder the poll numbers. The rumpled and professorial Mr Nader, who casts himself as a crusader for consumers against overweening corporations, is drawing 4-5 per cent nationally. But when the two main contenders, Al Gore and George W Bush, are so tightly matched in the polls, that small Green wedge becomes highly significant.

It is the Democratic Party that needs to fret. Strategists see a potential disaster in several key states where enough liberal-leaning voters who might normally pick Mr Gore will instead show their love for Mr Nader. Inadvertently, they could give those states, and the election, to Mr Bush.

Even in national polls, the impact of Mr Nader is clear. Yesterday's MSNBC-Reuters tracking poll showed Governor Bush with 44 per cent of likely voters over 42 per cent for Mr Gore. But with Nader removed from the picture, the two front-runners tied at 46 per cent.

Democrat strategists have identified about eight states where Nader has become a threat. Together, they account for 77 of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win on 7 November. It is no surprise that some of these, including Oregon, Iowa, Wisconsin and Louisiana, are on Mr Gore's travel schedule this week. Michigan, Maine and Minnesota are also states where Nader threatens to be a spoiler.

California may even be vulnerable. Winning California is vital for Mr Gore and for a long time it seemed almost certain that he would. That is no longer so. Suddenly, a Gore lead that was in the teens has slipped to the mid-single digits and Mr Nader may be part of the problem. In a Public Policy Institute poll released on Monday, Mr Gore led 44 per cent to 39 per cent for Mr Bush. Mr Nader scored 6 per cent. "The race in California is less stable than anyone expected," said pollster Mark Baldassare. "It is here that Nader could most affect Gore's chances for victory."

Mr Nader, who made his name lambasting General Motors over car safety back in the Sixties, is hardly charismatic on the stump. Still, he draws huge crowds at Green Party rallies around the country, where enthusiastic, mostly twentysomething, disciples greet him like a rock star. On a recent Saturday night in New York, he and a few Hollywood backers crammed 16,000 into Madison Square Garden.

His message is simple: the big corporations have bought the electoral process in America and bought the two main candidates. Whether the issue is the environment or prescription drugs or the future of the energy supply, the real decisions will be made in company executive suites, not the Oval Office. Understand that, he argues, and you will understand why Messrs Gore and Bush are one and the same.

When the Vice President needs to aim his guns on his Republican foe, he finds himself increasingly distracted by the Nader tide. The Vice President has begun to stress his environmental record. He is also under pressure to spell out the obvious to those who may be flirting with Mr Nader. Vote for him and you will get a Republican administration.

"Toward the end of the election it is still likely that the vast majority of people will want to cast a vote that will decide the future of the country," Mr Gore said on Monday. "My task is not to tell those people not to vote for Nader. Instead, my task is to convince them to vote enthusiastically for me."

That a Bush win may be the consequence of his campaign has hardly deterred Mr Nader. He knows that if he draws 5 per cent or more of the vote next month, he will become eligible for federal funds to pay for this campaign's bills and for a renewed effort in 2004.

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