-- Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore has begun warning his audiences that votes for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader could help elect the Republican contender, George W. Bush.
By Peter Dizikes and David RuppeABCNEWS.comOct. 21— For the first time, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore is telling his audiences not to vote for
“If the big oil companies and the chemical manufacturers and the big polluters were able to communicate a message to this state, they would say, ‘Vote for George Bush, or in any case, vote for Ralph Nader,’” Gore said at a rally in Madison, Wisconsin, on Thursday night.
Gore’s speech in Madison drew a crowd estimated at 30,000, in a city and state where Nader, the Green Party presidential candidate, is thought to enjoy some of his strongest support.
In the final stages of the closest presidential race in a generation, Democrats are concerned by the prospect that Nader’s third-party candidacy will siphon votes away from Gore, tipping the balance in favor of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, in a few key states.
But Nader is unruffled by the criticism, saying Gore has only himself to blame if he loses.
“Gore will beat Gore, if he can’t defeat the bumbling governor from Texas with his horrific record,” Nader said on ABC’s Good Morning America today.
“No one is entitled to votes,” Nader added. “We all have to earn our votes.”
The famed consumer advocate and anti-corporate activist called Democrats critical of his candidacy “frightened liberals” and said much of his support will come from independents and first-time voters.
The GOP is actively trying to cash in on the threat Nader’s candidacy presents to Gore. The Republican Leadership Council is releasing a new televisions ad today using footage of Nader criticizing Gore.
The spot, to be released in Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington, shows Nader saying the Clinton-Gore administration has provided “eight years of principles betrayedand promises broken.”
How Real a Threat?
But some pollsters, and recent polling numbers, suggest the Gore campaign may have less to worry about from Nader than they think.
“My guess is that at the end of the day we will not say that Ralph Nader determined the outcome of this election. And that chances are he’ll be doing somewhat less well on election day than he is today,” says Mark Mellman, president of the Washington-based Mellman Group.
“Some of those people may not want to go in there and pull the lever for Ralph Nader when that means a vote for George Bush,” Mellman says.
An ABCNEWS tracking poll released Thursday suggests that more than half of Ralph Nader’s supporters may change their minds before Election Day, a very high level of potential defections.
Among Nader supporters in the ABCNEWS survey, 44 percent say they are definitely for him, but a majority, 56 percent, say they may change their minds.
And a majority of those potential defectors — more than six in 10 — say there’s a good chance they’ll switch.
Gore would figure to benefit from defections among Nader’s supporters. If Nader were not running, 56 percent of his supporters say they would vote for Gore, while just 23 percent would cast their ballots for Bush, the poll says. An additional 21 percent say they would not vote at all.
In states such as traditionally Democratic Minnesota, where the race between Bush and Gore is a toss-up, a 50 percent drop in support for Nader between now and election day could prove crucial. One poll released Oct. 18 tabbed Nader’s support in Minnesota at eight percent, with Bush leading Gore 44 percent to 41 percent.
Wisconsin, Oregon and the state of Washington also are frequently cited as toss-ups, where the presence of Nader could loom large.
Even before Gore’s comments on Thursday, Democrats were devoting greater resources this week to compete with Nader.
Gore’s running-mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, on Wednesday similarly warned “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.”
The always-colorful Nader complained Thursday that a “cowardly” Al Gore was sending big names like Jesse Jackson, Bill Bradley, and Sen. Paul Wellstone, to warn a Green Party vote could damage Gore’s prospects on Election Day.
“Al Gore, in his typically cowardly way, is sending outsurrogates, most of them progressive Democrats who he has notsupported, to criticize our campaign,” Nader said.
“This istypical of Gore. He has a serious character deficiency. If he wantsto challenge me, he should challenge me directly,” Nader said.
No Signs Yet of Diminishing
So far, Nader’s support shows no sign of diminishing nationally — but neither is he gaining backers.
The last nine ABCNEWS daily tracking polls show him holding steady at three percent.
Nader needs to draw five percent of the vote Nov. 7 in order for the Green Party to receive federal matching funds for a campaign in 2004.
A grassroots effort has sprung up in an effort to help Nader reach the five-percent mark while not hurting Gore, with one Web site calling for potential voters to become “Nader Traders.”
The site urges those considering voting for Nader in states where the race is close to vote for Gore — after contacting friends in states where the race is not tight, and arranging with them to vote for Nader, as a means of keeping the Green Party candidate’s percentage of the popular vote intact.
The Nader camp is optimistic Nader’s support will remain steady, if not improve on election day.
“Ralph’s votes are coming from a variety of sources, they’re not all coming out of the Democratic side. Many of them are independents,” says Nader’s press secretary Jake Lewis.
He adds, “And a great may of the votes that we think will go in the Nader column are people who have not voted in recent elections,” noting less than half the eligible voters voted in the last presidential election, leaving more than 90 million who didn’t.
“Clearly something is happening out there when you get crowds of 15,000,” says Lewis, referring to recent “super-rallies” like the one Nader held in Madison Square Garden earlier this month.
“They come out there because they want to hear Ralph, and we think that's a good indication of support.”