by Pete Karman

7.19.2000 -- Ralph Nader's campaign is quickly turning into the sweet spot of presidential politics not only here in Connecticut but in the six largest states as well. The latest polls have the Green Party candidate running at or near 10 percent in Connecticut, New York and California, 8 percent in Pennsylvania and 6 percent in Illinois and Michigan. Nader fares less well in Florida and Texas. An earlier Gallup Poll puts Nader at 6 percent nationally.

The new numbers come from surveys taken by the American Research Group in early July. They are slightly stronger for our region than a tri-state poll by Quinnipiac University done in late June. The big surprise, especially in Connecticut, was the weakness of the Al Gore campaign, running neck and neck with George W. Bush at an unimpressive 38 percent.

This, among other events, has the Democrats running scared, according to Nader. He told reporters at a Washington news conference on July 12 that Vice President Gore was "directly" involved in efforts to alienate some of Nader's celebrity supporters. Though Nader didn't identify those he said were contacted by Gore, the list of his better-known endorsers includes Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Phil Donahue and members of Pearl Jam.

"For three months," said Nader, "the Gore campaign would say to reporters that they are not losing any sleep, over my campaign. But they are not slumbering on. They are already trying to reach some of our social justice celebrity supporters and convince them to spin off and support them. Some of these calls are being made directly by the vice president. "The contacts were confirmed by William M. Daley, Gore's campaign manager, who admitted, according to the N.Y. Times that "Nader worries the Gore camp."

Apparently in response to the Nader candidacy he carefully ignored until recent weeks, Gore has moved to using more populist rhetoric, attacking oil, drug and tobacco companies for profiteering at the expense of ordinary Americans. Cynics might note that Gore's new stance mirrors the scene in Casablanca where the police inspector professes shock at gambling even as he pockets his winnings. Oil, drug and tobacco interests, among other corporate high rollers, have supplied both money and talent to the Gore campaign.

While Democrats are taking the Nader candidacy ever more seriously, Nader and the Greens see more at stake than gaining the votes of liberal and labor Democrats disillusioned by their party's long and apparently inexorable slide to the right. At the same press conference where he noted that Gore was trying to respin some well-known Nader supporters, Nader also announced that his campaign was hiring Bill Hillsman. Hillsman is the publicist whose quirky commercials helped to bring victory to the offbeat campaigns of Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone.

While some Democrats worry that a strong showing by Nader will bring Bush to power, it's increasingly clear that even more Americans see no reason to vote for either Gore or Bush. Andrew Kohut, pollster for the Pew Research Center, said on July 12 that voter participation this year is likely to dip below 1996's level of 49 percent. The great mass of the American electorate consists not of Democrats or Republicans but independents and those who don't bother to vote. The same old same old of conventional politics as represented by Gore and Bush has long since turned them off. Nader and the Greens are betting that they can turn them back on with a fresh politics of honesty, reform and participation.

Pete Karman is a contributing editor to In These Times, a Chicago-based national news magazine.