Nader puts off Kerry on ending race
WASHINGTON -- Senator John F. Kerry tried to persuade presidential rival Ralph Nader to quit the race yesterday by pledging to fight for Nader's agenda, but Nader made clear he would continue to run and sought access to the candidates' debates this fall, according to Nader and aides to Kerry.
In an interview with the Globe after the two met, Nader said he remained concerned that there was a lack of intensity and focus in Kerry's campaign as the Democrat has failed to seize the advantage as President Bush ''self-destructs politically because of Iraq and other problems."
Yet the longtime consumer advocate was far less blunt during the hourlong conversation at Kerry's campaign office, according to aides, as the two men, who have been friends for 30 years, made forceful but respectful arguments for their own candidacies.
Kerry did not explicitly ask Nader to drop out, aides said, despite fears that the Independent could spoil the party's hope of reclaiming the White House. Instead, Kerry recounted their mutual support for ending federal subsidies to corporations, supporting abortion rights, and other issues, while avoiding their sharpest political difference, the military occupation of Iraq.
A Kerry aide who briefed reporters on the meeting related: ''John Kerry said: 'Don't judge me by the people who preceded me. You may have had a history with Bill Clinton or Al Gore or the Democratic leadership in the Congress,' all of whom Nader had mentioned as people he had disagreements with, 'but that's not me. I have fought with you; I have been with you on a range of issues.' "
Nader said last night he was not persuaded by that argument, but said he would be listening closely to Kerry's speeches in upcoming weeks for more emphasis on progressive issues. He also said he pressed Kerry to open up the presidential debates to candidates outside the two major parties. The Democrat replied that he had not given the format of the debates any thought, Kerry aides said yesterday.
''We've had a lot of liberal Democrats say the right things, but when they get into office, they don't have the intensity and don't attach the prioritity to our issues," Nader said. ''That's what I told Senator Kerry I'm looking for, higher intensity."
The stakes of the meeting were especially important for Kerry: After selecting a vice presidential nominee, containing the potential threat of Nader drawing votes from liberals is a top issue for Kerry's advisers. For now, they have chosen to avoid a full assault on Nader, saying that Kerry and his allies -- such as Howard Dean, Edward M. Kennedy, and former Green Party supporters of Nader -- will make the case that the only way to enact Nader's agenda is by electing Kerry president.
Some Democrats are organizing to block Nader's access to state ballots or to align his past supporters with Kerry, keenly aware that, in 2000, Nader drew 2.8 million votes and was widely seen as pulling liberals, environmentalists, and others away from Gore and costing him victories in Florida and New Hampshire. Last week, Nader won the national Reform Party's backing and access to ballots in Florida, Michigan, and five other states, and he is seeking spots in an additional 40.
At a meeting with Associated Press reporters and editors before meeting with Nader yesterday, Kerry said he believed he could ''reduce any rationale" for Nader's candidacy. ''In the end, I hope I can make people aware that a vote for Ralph Nader is a vote for George Bush," Kerry said. ''A vote for John Kerry is a vote for the principles and values they care about."
Kerry declined to comment to his traveling press corps about the meeting yesterday.
The two men made strong arguments in defense of their respective candidacies, said the Kerry aide who briefed reporters, but they also stuck to safe points of political agreement, such as opposing corporate welfare and promoting corporate responsibility.
Nader, who had said earlier this week that he planned to challenge Kerry on Iraq, did not press the presumed Democratic nominee on that issue, aides to both men said. Nader wants US troops pulled out of Iraq; Kerry would continue the occupation at least until a stable Iraq government is achieved.
''I think Kerry made a very strong and persuasive case about why he thinks that he is the best candidate to take on George Bush and how he and Ralph Nader have shared common values and issues over a 30-year period that George Bush is completely opposed to, and the way to deal with that is to elect John Kerry president," the Kerry aide said. Kerry said he has won election to the Senate four times without accepting political action committee money, though he has benefited heavily from lobbyists' donations, the aide also said.
Another Kerry campaign official described relations with Nader as a ''delicate dance" and said that Kerry was reluctant to try to influence or pressure the maverick independent too forcefully. Senior Democrats are planning a campaign by party operatives to pressure Nader publicly and privately.
Kerry aides said they hoped Nader will be persuaded in the next 5 months that antiwar voters, liberals who supported Dean in the 2004 primaries, and many who backed Nader in 2000 will unite behind Kerry's effort to topple Bush.
Scott Maddox, chairman of Florida's Democratic Party, recalled yesterday that Nader won about 97,000 votes in that state in 2000, while Gore lost to Bush there by 537. He called Nader ''a serious threat" to Kerry's prospects on Election Day.
''I think he can easily play the role of spoiler this year and again defeat the interests of many people," Maddox said. ''In 2000, on environmental issues, he helped defeat the man [Gore] who wrote 'Earth in the Balance,' to elect the man who supported drilling in the Arctic refuge. We have turned back the clock on environmental protection in this country because Nader was on the ballot."
Asked whether the Florida Democratic Party would challenge Nader's access to the Reform Party line on the presidential ballot there, Maddox said, ''We're going to make sure that whatever he submits is legally sufficient" to earn a spot on the ballot.
Among the tools being used to blunt Nader's impact this year is a new website aimed at progressive voters, called ''The Nader Factor," that aims to enlist liberals and past supporters of the independent candidate on Kerry's behalf. Tricia Enright, a former spokeswoman for Dean's presidential campaign who is helping to develop the online project, said her group would not challenge Nader's spot on ballots but rather make the case that beating Bush requires uniting behind Kerry.
''Our message is, let's combine forces," said Enright, who is working with former supporters of Democratic candidate Wesley K. Clark.
Nader had been pressing for the meeting with Kerry for months, and complained to CNN Sunday that Kerry and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill had not returned a recent call. A Kerry campaign official said the meeting was locked in place Tuesday night.
During the talks, Kerry aides said, Nader held firm to his oft-stated view that his candidacy will help Kerry's and ultimately draw more votes away from Bush.
Asked how he could help Kerry, Nader said: ''The purpose of this campaign is many, manyfold, starting with getting more young people involved and trying to get more voters out and expand the content of the campaign."
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.
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