WASHINGTON - The Reform Party endorsed Ralph Nader for president yesterday, providing the independent candidate a potential shortcut onto the ballot in the contested states of Florida, Michigan and Colorado.
Nader has yet to decide whether to run in those and four other states as the nominee of the party that Ross Perot founded in the 1990s. But the endorsement gives him that option.
Nader has not yet qualified for the ballot in any state, but the Reform Party decision drew renewed attention to his possible impact on the race between President Bush and his presumed Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
Democrats widely blame Nader for the narrow loss of the party's 2000 nominee, Al Gore. This year, Democrats fear that Nader - who is positioning himself as a "peace candidate" to court voters who oppose the Iraq war - could siphon crucial support from Kerry's left flank.
"Unless [Nader] wants his legacy to be one of a spoiler who helped place George W. Bush in office for two terms, we would urge that he drop out of the race before November," said Jano Cabrera, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
"Nader contends his candidacy appeals to voters on the right and the left. As evidence, he pointed to backing by a party whose 2000 presidential nominee was conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan."
Nader said in a statement, "This endorsement shows that our independent campaign is receiving support from across the political spectrum from people upset with President Bush and looking to shift the power back to the people so a solution revolution can take hold and solve many of the nagging problems and injustices in our society."
Nader spoke to Reform Party leaders for about 20 minutes late Monday in a conference call to seek their endorsement. A party leadership committee held another conference call late Tuesday to deliberate.
Early yesterday, Nader won the endorsement on the third ballot, with 28 votes from the 37 leaders on the call, party Chairman Shawn O'Hara said.
O'Hara, a Mississippi resident, said in a statement: "Ralph Nader has stood up for the rights of American citizens his entire life. He is a man of peace, and with the help of every citizen who did not vote in the primaries, he can win the November presidential election."
Although Reform Party officials claim at least 1 million followers, its national influence in recent years has been minimal. But it retains some clout because of the presidential ballot lines it holds in Florida, Michigan and Colorado.
Those states, with a combined 53 electoral votes, have been targeted by both the Bush and Kerry campaigns. The Reform Party also has ballot lines in Kansas, Montana, Mississippi and South Carolina; Bush is strongly favored in each.
Control of ballot lines is a major issue for third parties and independent candidates who must navigate a wildly varying set of state access laws to mount a broad challenge to the two-party system.
This week Nader sued to get onto the ballot in Texas, for example, after missing a petition deadline there.
The Reform Party was started by Perot during his run for the presidency in the 1996 election. The Texas billionaire, who ran as an independent in 1992, offered himself as a fiscal conservative and good-government advocate who would clean house in Washington.
He drew millions of votes in both of his campaigns. Many Republicans believe his strong showing in 1992 helped deny Bush's father, former President Bush, to a second term.
A high point for the Reform Party came when it helped elect Jesse Ventura governor of Minnesota in 1998. But the party fractured in 2000 over Buchanan's presidential candidacy.
That year, Nader was the Green Party nominee and qualified for the ballot in 43 states and the District of Columbia. This year, Nader has said he is not interested in the Green nomination - but he is quietly seeking the party's endorsement. Green Party members are scheduled to decide that matter at a convention in June in Milwaukee.
Charles Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst in Washington, predicted Nader would not attain the 2.7 percent of the popular vote he drew in 2000 but still could be a significant factor in November's outcome.
"The closer this race is, going into the fall, the more it reduces the Nader vote," Cook said. "This time, people are prepared for it."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.