Ralph Nader, the consumer champion who became the scourge of Democrats for his determination to run for U.S. president, faced a concerted challenge yesterday to his candidacy in a battleground state.
In two separate lawsuits, Democratic activists in Pennsylvania sought to keep Nader off November's ballot.
The move intensifies the war between Republicans and Democrats over Nader's candidacy, a conflict fueled by the maverick's willingness to accept funds and help from some of President Bush's most ardent supporters.
Republicans are eager to see Nader do well -- not because of his stand on the environment or Iraq but in the hope that he will tip the balance toward in the race against John Kerry, the Democratic challenger. But the Democrats have stood their ground, with activists harrying Nader's effort to get on the ballot in several states.
In the Pennsylvania lawsuits Democrats accused the Nader campaign of falsifying thousands of names on petitions endorsing his candidacy in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas. His campaign was also accused of failing to pay the contractors who organized the petition and who allegedly paid homeless people a dollar for each signature.
A spokesman for Nader said only petition gatherers who turned in fraudulent signatures were unpaid.
The Democrats took Pennsylvania by a relatively slim margin during the last election, and party activists defended the lawsuits against Nader yesterday.
"The bottom line for us is that we are partisan Democrats, and we are very much interested in getting John Kerry elected," said Michael Manzo, aide to a Democratic state legislator. "We view Mr. Nader's candidacy as a threat. Will it be a large threat? We hope not, but we are not willing to take any chances."
Similar scenarios are unfolding in other states with Democrats fighting a rear-guard action to keep Nader out of the presidential race.
In the battleground state of Arizona he was knocked off the ballot on a technicality, and the party is raising funds for legal challenges in Florida, Michigan, West Virginia and Nevada.
Nader dismissed the challenges as a display of insecurity. "It shows the lack of confidence Democrats have in their own candidate," he told Business Week magazine.
However, among Nader's new supporters this election is billionaire Richard Egan, who was appointed ambassador to Ireland after raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for President Bush. Campaign monitors say other big Republican donors have contributed as well. In Oregon, also poised for a tight contest, two conservative groups admitted telephoning supporters to help put Nader on the ticket.
But even with the new-found patrons, he has made slow progress in his effort to get on state ballots. He missed a chance to get on the ballot in California last weekend when supporters raised only half the 153,000 signatures required.
But Democrats say that was Nader's due when he decided to contest these elections, reopening the feud on the American left begun when Nader drained off crucial support for Al Gore in the 2000 elections, handing Bush his victory.
With memories of that defeat still rankling, even some of Nader's closest associates were outraged when he announced his candidacy earlier this year. That anger grew further when Nader rebuffed a request from Kerry to stay out of the race in key states.
That is when the Democratic machine stepped in with Howard Dean, a hero to the party's left wing for his antiwar stance, deployed to herd wayward Democrats.
One of Dean's aides from his failed campaign for the Democratic leadership founded a Web site called the Nader Factor, which documents Republican support for Nader.
Nader is not expected to match the 2.8 million votes he won last time. But some like John Zogby, the Democratic pollster, say that hardly matters. He said Nader could hold the balance in several states, should he succeed in getting on the ballot.
But his candidacy presents another challenge for the Democrats. "He is the ghost of the left, he is the one who rallies the antiwar sentiment and Democratic populism, and so his presence in the race is casting a shadow on Kerry," Zogby said. "It's not going to be enough for him just not to be George Bush."