By Anita Kumar and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 29, 2009
RICHMOND, May 28 -- Former presidential candidate Ralph Nader went public Thursday with an allegation that Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe offered his campaign money to stay off the ballot in key states during the 2004 elections -- a disclosure timed to raise questions about McAuliffe's fitness for public office.
"Terry McAuliffe is slipperier than an eel in olive oil," Nader said in an interview.
He said McAuliffe, who was the Democratic National Committee chairman at the time, had offered Nader's campaign an unspecified amount of money, believed to be party funds, to spend in 31 states in exchange for an agreement to withdraw from 19 battleground states where he could potentially hurt Democrat John Kerry.
The allegation -- which McAuliffe has not disputed -- is the latest attempt to suggest that the candidate's lengthy career as a confidant to President Bill Clinton and top party fundraiser could now be a political liability. McAuliffe's aides countered that any effort he made to thwart Nader might actually play well with party loyalists.
"It looks like Ralph Nader misses seeing his name in the press," said Elisabeth Smith, McAuliffe's spokeswoman. "Terry's focused on talking with Virginians about jobs, not feeding Ralph Nader's ego."
The disclosure comes less than two weeks before voters go to the polls to determine which of three Democratic candidates will stand for governor in Virginia this year. In recent weeks, McAuliffe has been absorbing increasingly pointed criticism from his opponents, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds and former delegate Brian Moran.
A life on the center stage of national politics, much of it spent as a close adviser to Clinton, has produced plenty of fodder for the two opponents, even though McAuliffe has dismissed most of the attacks as tired smears long ago discredited. Political analysts said it is impossible to know whether any of it will sway voters.
"The risk is that he's painted as someone who doesn't operate purely transparently and ethically," said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University. "That he engages in smoke-filled backroom deals, promises made, quid pro quos, you scratch my back, I scratch yours. Voters don't want that out of their elected officials."
McAuliffe isn't denying Nader's claim, but he would not talk publicly about it. Smith said in a statement that McAuliffe "was concerned that Ralph Nader would cost John Kerry the election as he did Al Gore in 2000 and give us another four years of George W. Bush."
The accusation against McAuliffe was first disclosed in a new book, "Grand Illusion: The Myth of Voter Choice in a Two-Party Tyranny," by Theresa Amato, who was Nader's national campaign manager in 2000 and 2004.
Nader and Amato were on the phone with McAuliffe, according to the book, when he said: "Ralph, I would love for you to be running for president in 31 states; the issue is these 19 states where a vote for you is a vote for Bush."
"But what started as a seeming financial proposition being put on the table charged into a directive with each repetition of 'stay out of 19 states,' " Amato wrote. "McAuliffe alternated between dictating to Ralph the terms and cajoling him, saying to Ralph, 'You'd be a . . . hero,' " she wrote.
Nader and Amato said McAuliffe never mentioned how much money he would provide or where exactly it would come from, but they assumed that he was offering Democratic Party money. Nader said he refused the offer immediately.
"It's completely inappropriate. The inappropriate behavior cannot be rationalized," Nader said. "If you don't immediately say no, it's like taffy -- you get stuck with it."
Scott Thomas, a Democrat who served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said there would have been nothing illegal about extending such an offer.
"It sounds like it's one of those situations where it makes your skin crawl," Thomas said. "But it's something where, if you look at the underlying law, party committees have virtually no constraints whatsoever on how they spend their money."