Nader's numbers could tip balance in battleground states
TOLEDO, Ohio (CNN) -- With a hair's breadth separating Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush in some Midwestern states, the small number of voters drawn to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader looks bigger.
The presidential race is close in Ohio and other states in the industrial Midwest. Nader's support has declined since the Democratic National Convention in August, when many traditionally Democratic voters took a second look at Gore -- but even a modest numbers of voters crossing party lines could influence the outcome in these states.
In recent polls, Nader's campaign is attracting 3 percent of the popular vote -- a small number, but enough to cause trouble in tight races in the industrial Midwest and the Pacific Northwest.
Toledo is still a 'Big Labor' town, and Big Labor has thrown its support to Gore. But Nader's anti-corporate message and his disdain for Gore and the Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- whom he dubs "the drab and the dreary" -- have peeled off some of the Democrats' traditional union supporters.
Some of Nader's volunteers here joined the cause after Nader backed an unsuccessful fight to save their neighborhood. They lost, and 83 homes were bulldozed to make way for a Jeep plant nearby.
Voters like Anita Rios, a lifelong Democrat and union member, are looking to send the Democrats a message. Angered by the Clinton administration's support for free trade and welfare reform, she has thrown her support to Nader.
"Al Gore and Bill Clinton have done more to hurt the small people than just about anyone who has ever been elected to office," Rios said.
Resources are scarce among Nader volunteers. Rios uses her home as a campaign office and a computer to keep in touch with other loyalists via e-mail: "Without the Internet, we couldn't function," she said.
Al Hart, an organizer for the 35,000-member United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America, says he'll be skipping the Democratic lever this time around.
"Labor and minorities and environmentalists are treated like we have no place else to go," said Hart, who voted twice for President Clinton. "So maybe we need to establish someplace else to go."
Nader supporters say unions were able to muster only tepid support for Gore at this week's Labor Day festivities in Toledo -- proof to them that many of the rank-and-file aren't following their leaders.
"We now have over 48 million uninsured in the United States, and Ralph Nader is the only candidate who offers single-payer, universal health care," Nader activist Mike Leonardi said.
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, brewery proprietor Larry Bell says he's voting for Nader despite considering him anti-business.
"He's not going to win, but my vote is a vote for having more voices heard in the country," Bell said.
Bell said he hasn't backed a major-party candidate since 1980. So it's not his vote that Gore considers a threat in states like Michigan: Its the votes of disaffected liberals who might bolt the Democrats to support Nader.
Nader's supporters know money is scarce and the polls have taken a turn for the worse. It doesn't help that there are other options for lodging a protest vote -- such as Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan or Libertarian nominee Harry Browne -- or that their man is likely to be left out of the presidential debates.
But they are pressing on, to make sure the buttons they hand out -- and their votes -- will be treasured keepsakes, not throwaways soon to be forgotten.