Kerry, Nader Meet and Go Separate Ways
Democrats Want To Diminish Man They Call Spoiler
By Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 20, 2004; Page A04
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) met privately yesterday with independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who many Democrats believe cost Vice President Al Gore the White House in 2000, but the private session left the two in disagreement over the best way to defeat President Bush in November and with Nader saying he has no intention of quitting the race.
The 70-minute session at Kerry's headquarters in downtown Washington came amid signs of an emerging two-pronged Democratic strategy to counter Nader's candidacy that tries to avoid mistakes Democrats believe were made four years ago.
The strategy includes keeping lines of communication open between Nader and the Kerry campaign and Democratic Party officials while the party and its constituency groups work aggressively to diminish Nader's candidacy and dissuade voters in the battleground states from supporting Nader in November. Kerry's campaign hopes that former Vermont governor Howard Dean can appeal to potential Nader voters as well.
That marks a shift from four years ago, when the Gore campaign feared that engaging with Nader would only raise his political profile and Democrats launched anti-Nader operations in only a handful of states. In two states that Bush won with razor-thin margins, Florida and New Hampshire, Nader's vote far eclipsed Bush's victory margin, Democrats made little effort to diminish Nader's support.
"We paid a price for the big strategic decision we took, which was total non-engagement," said one Democratic strategist who declined to be identified to speak more openly about the Gore campaign's mistakes. "We wish we had done more of a direct appeal in more states than we did."
In their meeting, Kerry did not ask Nader to give up his candidacy. "It wouldn't be successful and I don't think it's our place to tell Ralph Nader what to do," said a Kerry adviser who spoke to reporters after the meeting. The adviser also said Kerry told Nader that the best way "to make progress on the issues we care about is to beat George Bush -- and I intend to do it."
Nader, in an interview, said he argued that in the end he will take more votes from Bush than from Kerry, but Kerry disagreed with that analysis. Shortly before the meeting, Kerry told the Associated Press, "I hope I can make people aware that a vote for Ralph Nader is a vote for George Bush."
Kerry and Nader talked about corporate welfare, consumer issues and other fights they have waged together over the past two decades. When Nader complained that the Democratic Party has given in to corporate interests, Kerry said, "Don't judge me by the people who preceded me."
Asked his reaction to that comment, Nader said: "I believe he believes it. The proof is in the pudding. We're way beyond confusing words with deeds."
The two did not talk about Iraq, which some Democrats fear could be the issue that Nader uses to attract support on the left among voters who want U.S. troops removed immediately. Democratic strategist James Carville told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast yesterday that Nader brings clarity to an issue that troubles many Democrats. "Nader has a simple thing he's saying: bring the troops home," he said. "It's easy to understand."
Both sides described the tone of the meeting as courteous and not contentious, and a Kerry campaign official said the candidate was prepared to continue the dialogue as the campaign year goes along. Similarly, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe has kept an open line to Nader, mindful of Nader's complaints that he was shunned by Gore and the party four years ago, although McAuliffe never fails to urge Nader to give up his candidacy.
But as some Democrats hold Nader close, others are calling for a far more aggressive effort to challenge him. "I think he is a contemptible liar," said Lanny Davis, a former Clinton administration official who is raising money for the Kerry campaign. "He's knowingly making false statements. . . . when he says he's not hurting John Kerry's chances of becoming president. I believe we need to start to describe him exactly that way and don't mince words. We made that mistake four years ago."
A group of Democratic strategists yesterday unveiled a new Web site -- www.thenaderfactor.com -- dedicated to winning over "Nader Democrats" though a variety of positive appeals, including TV ads.
Tricia Enright, former communications director to Dean, is president of National Progress Fund, which launched the site. David Jones, a former top adviser to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), helped create the organization. Enright said they planned to start airing targeted television ads next week in as many as six states, including Florida.
Similarly, Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said her organization will match or exceed the activity of 2000, when the group spent about $1.5 million on TV ads for Gore in states where Nader had substantial support.
On another matter, Kerry yesterday was forced to clarify his position on an abortion litmus test for Supreme Court appointees. Kerry, who has previously backed a litmus test, appeared to soften that position during an interview with Associated Press.
"I will not appoint somebody with a 5-4 court who's about to undo Roe v. Wade. I've said that before," Kerry said. "But that doesn't mean that if that's not the balance of the court, I wouldn't be prepared ultimately to appoint somebody to some court who has a different point of view. I've already voted for people like that. I voted for Judge [Antonin] Scalia."
A Kerry aide privately admitted the candidate's statement was confusing, while other Democrats said it appeared like a flip-flop. Soon after, the campaign issued a statement clarifying Kerry's opposition to antiabortion rights judges.
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