WASHINGTON - Ralph Nader dismissed yesterday the rising concerns of Democrats who say his presidential bid could siphon enough votes from Al Gore to cost Gore the election, saying he would press on with his campaign against the "two corrupt political parties" no matter the outcome.
"Both parties must feel the heat," the Green Party candidate said in a news conference. "They're slobbering their way through one election after another, breaking one promise after another and thinking they can fool the American people."
In his rumpled gray suit and with his perpetually slumped shoulders, the legendary consumer advocate has traveled all 50 states - flying coach on commercial jets and attracting the presidential campaign's largest crowds of 10,000-plus - in hopes of building the Green Party into a credible, citizen-powered watchdog party.
His goals, he has said, are to capture at least 5 percent on Election Day, enough to earn federal money for the Green Party in 2004, and to stop the Democratic Party's drift to the center by emboldening its liberal, progressive corner.
But as the presidential race has tightened into the closest since 1960, the 4 percent or 5 percent that Nader is drawing in national polls could make a difference, possibly tilting several swing states toward the Republican candidate, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
Polls show that Nader could be a decisive factor in such states as Oregon and Washington - rich with Green Party environmentalists - as well as in such independent-minded states as Minnesota, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico. All went to Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and could prove vital this time.
Even in California, which offers the most electoral votes, a recent Nader surge has eroded Gore's once commanding lead down to 5 to 7 percentage points, according to recent polls.
Because of the Nader threat, more than 50 Gore volunteers from Maryland will be heading this week to help the effort in Wisconsin.
Last week, a dozen former "Nader's Raiders" - activists who joined Nader's early crusades for safer cars, food and water - urged Nader to reconsider his candidacy.
"It would be cruel irony indeed if your major legacy were to erase the victory from the candidate who most embodies your philosophy, Al Gore, and to give the Executive Branch to the party which has consistently resisted your progressive ideals," they wrote in a letter posted on a "Nader's Raiders for Gore" Web site.
"They are well-intentioned," Nader said of his former associates yesterday. "But they are not in the trenches. They don't understand how the Democratic Party has decayed in the last 20 years."
Labor leaders and congressional Democrats, including Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, have also pleaded with Nader in recent days to urge his followers in swing states to vote for Gore.
In some states, especially on the West Coast, Nader supporters and "Greens for Gore" are organizing "Hold Your Vote" campaigns, urging people to wait until 7:30 p.m. to vote. If exit polls suggest that the race in their state is close, they should vote for Gore; if Gore is ahead by a safe margin, they can back their first choice, Nader.
Similarly, Greg MacArthur, a Nader supporter in New York who bought full-page newspaper ads to run today in states where either Bush or Gore has a solid lead, canceled ads planned for California.
Nader said he did not endorse such "tactical voting," in which only his supporters in states safely secured by Gore or Bush could vote their conscience. "No one can exude trust by running that kind of forked-road campaign," he said in an interview yesterday.
What's more, Nader said, he found little difference between Bush - "a big corporation running for president disguised as a person" - and Gore, with his "Pinocchio nose."
"There may be some marginal differences from time to time," he said. "But the overriding similarity of allowing our government to be taken over by big business far outweighs any minor differences."
At one point, Nader charged: "Al Gore is suffering from election-year delusion if he thinks his record on the environment is anything to be proud of. He should be held accountable by voters for eight years of principles betrayed and promises broken."
But some close to his campaign say that while Nader has railed against Gore with more gusto than he has against Bush, he does not, in fact, want to be a spoiler.
"Contrary to his public pronouncements that he dislikes Al Gore as much as George Bush, Ralph would be very unhappy to see his participation in the political process give the election to Bush," says one associate familiar with his campaign.
In an interview, Nader seemed to rationalize the possibility that his candidacy could help elect Bush. By his calculation, the Nader voters - if they turn out in high enough numbers to cost Gore the election - would also be likely to join with Gore supporters to elect Democrats to Congress and return the House to the Democrats.
"That's a big victory," Nader said. "There are some Democrats who told me, if it was a choice between the Democrats winning the House and a Republican winning the White House, or the reverse, they'd take the former. That's where the purse strings are."
That's not, of course, how the Gore campaign sees it. The vice president's team and the Democratic National Committee are scurrying to try to tamp down Nader's momentum in swing states and woo Green Party enthusiasts to their camp.
To that end, they have dispatched surrogates with solid liberal credentials, such as Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Gloria Steinem, environmental and labor leaders, gay and lesbian activists, even Robert Redford, to make the case that a vote for Nader could be tantamount to a vote for Bush.
The vice president himself spent time last week in Oregon, a state that should have been a shoo-in for the Democrat but where his lead has shrunk to a single point as Nader's following has grown.
Yesterday, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League produced an anti-Nader ad for Oregon, Wisconsin and Minnesota, cautioning that "Voting for Ralph Nader helps elect George Bush."
Paul Berendt, chairman of Washington state's Democratic Party, says there is a "building sense of urgency" because the election in his state is so close and Nader is drawing 5 percent. But he says Democrats there and elsewhere fear that any effort to directly attack Nader could backfire by angering his supporters.
"The last thing we need to do is make these people into martyrs," he said. "All we can do is make the case for Gore and tell people, 'Don't throw away your vote.'"
While it is generally assumed that Nader's supporters come out of the Democratic pool, many analysts believe that at least 50 percent, and perhaps more, are disaffected voters who have seldom backed major-party candidates.
In fact, even in Michigan - where Bush and Gore were dead-even in a recent survey - independent pollster Ed Sarpolus says he does not think the Nader vote will damage Gore.
"Most [Nader supporters] are nontraditional voters who probably would not vote for anyone were Nader not on the ballot," he says.
Democrats also hope that once Election Day arrives, those in swing states who may have flirted with Nader will have second thoughts. "At the end of the day, a lot of those folks will come home to the Democratic Party when they know our 10 electoral votes could mean the difference in the election," says Hubert H. "Buck" Humphrey IV, director of the Gore campaign in Minnesota.
For Nader's part, he knows he will not win the election. And even if he doesn't garner 5 percent, he says, his campaign will have been a success.
"After the election is over, you wait and see how respectful the [centrist] Clinton-Gore-Lieberman Democratic Party will be to the progressive wing," Nader said. "Because they know the progressive wing now has a place to go."