There is no summer in Milwaukee this week; it's freezing and drizzly and gray. But then summer is not the ideal season for the Green Party National Convention. On a bright sunny day, one's thoughts might be distracted from the critical issues: corporate control, toxic air, racial injustice and the right of any animal not to be treated as property.

Lost would be the many innovations of one Claude Vander Veen, local bicycle enthusiast and a man for all seasons.

Vander Veen's helmet is not that spiffy aerodynamic kind, but a solid metal contraption taped up with a string of red lights reminiscent of Marvin the Martian. His gloves are big, thick, orange things, more like oven mitts. In general he prefers coveralls like the kind airline mechanics wear in the dead of winter when working for long hours in open hangars.

The handful of Greens who've gathered for his session on alternative forms of commuting agree on the general principles: Keep those "Hummers" rotting in the garage. But as always with Greens, the strength of commitment lies in the purity of the details.

"Sixty-five percent polyester?" asks Bruce Hunter, eyeing the coverall tag with suspicion. "Why is that?" Then they drift into discussion of a future of 12-foot-wide lanes reserved for "human powered only."

Theoretically this could be a big breakout moment for the Greens. In the past four years the party has doubled in size. It has seeded a crop of scrappy local candidates with no money but big dreams who are running for city council-type seats and are actually winning. It has an administration hostile to one of its central concerns -- the environment. And it has a spiffy new logo!

But deep at their core Greens are still Greens, the aging grad students who never left campus, earnest and agitated, endlessly fine-tuning among themselves. The big decision this year -- whether to endorse Ralph Nader for president -- is debated endlessly as the weekend progresses, in the elevators, in the bathroom, down the escalator, long after midnight. But so is everything else, whether to drive or walk to the Kinko's, order for here or to go, whether to sleep at the corporate hotel.

"You're taking the elevator?" Janice Moore asks her friend. "Do you know who owns Otis stock?"

What counts is the tribe and all its intricate unspoken rules: Ethnic food is always better, and leftovers are never thrown away. People should carry their own silverware. Bags are cloth, preferably obtained free at museums or libraries. Hair is pure, no coloring, no blow-dry. Braids are cool.

Men should cede the microphone to women whenever possible. Women should cede it to lesbians. Lesbians to women from Third World countries, etc.

Women who are not Palestinian dress like Palestinians down to the head scarves, known as "solidarity kaffiyehs." Head scarves used to symbolize female oppression but no longer do -- chiefly, it seems, because Laura Bush said the women in Afghanistan were oppressed and we had to liberate them, and everything Laura Bush says is wrong.

Homeland is the Bay Area -- a place where true summer is also elusive.

Convention organizers Adam Benedetto and Tim Condon are recent college graduates and emissaries from the MTV generation. Benedetto ran for sheriff in Dane County, Wis., two years ago on the Green ticket, shooting his own highly ironic ads involving Puff Daddy and Britney Spears. He lost to a Republican but made his point.

"We just want to change what you think a Green Party person ought to be," says Condon, who shaves his head and wears a collarless black suit. "Us young people, we're from the packaging generation, where if it doesn't look good it can't be taken seriously."

Behind him is a guy with matted hair whose feet are as black as his drugstore flip-flops. Three hippies in heated discussion. A woman who has turned herself into a Christmas tree of protest buttons.

"I'm trying to figure out why a 19-year-old person who wants to vote doesn't even know the Green Party exists," Condon says. "There's a disconnect."

The Green Party has been slowly building for 20 years but got its biggest boost when its members nominated Nader as their candidate in 2000. Nader's celebrity brought in thousands of converts; there are now 300,000 members and parties in 44 states. Young new stars emerged: Matt Gonzalez won 47 percent of the vote in the San Francisco mayor's race. Jason West became mayor of New Paltz and the first Green official elected in New York, and then one of the first in the country to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

But the association with Nader also caused hassles and trauma. Many Democrats blame Nader's candidacy for costing them the election and are shocked he would run again. Now the Greens absorb hostile questions about Nader the spoiler. He will pay for that here today.

"I'm at the point where I'm embarrassed to be a Green in front of my family," says Green delegate Joan Strasser. "It's like saying we don't care if George Bush gets elected."

For this budding young party the flirtation with presidential politics is akin to a theater actress who goes out with Ben Affleck and they break up. She leaves the experience starstruck and slightly bitter, her reputation soiled, her inferiority complex exacerbated by the brush with fame.

Stories circulate about Nader's aloofness, his refusal to share his mailing lists with the Greens, his ignoring suggestions from staff. For a man who has dedicated his life to the nitty-gritty of consumer safety, Nader has stirred up a lot of strong passions.

"Nader is an icon in the movement but he does not share my vision of grass-roots democracy," says Anita Rios, who co-chairs the party's diversity committee. "He doesn't understand about working with people, grabbing people by the hand one by one," she says, getting agitated. "We don't need some rich white guy with a Harvard education leading us."

This year Nader decided not to come to the convention; he is running as an independent so he doesn't want the party's official nomination, only its endorsement. Nader chose Peter Camejo, a longtime Green activist who ran in the California recall race, as his running mate. But the no-show is taken as a sign of disrespect "Will he call?" one delegate asks Kevin Zeese, Nader's spokesman.

"I can't promise that," says Zeese.

"So I shouldn't go and tell people he'll call?"

"No," says Zeese, adding, "They just want to know Ralph loves them, that he cares."

After four years it's become clear that Nader and Greens may be a good ideological team but are mismatched in style. If pushed Nader can speak the PC, culture-wars idiom, but in his politics and personality he predates it; his love is consumer protection, after almost 30 years in public life he's said almost nothing about his personal life. He is a stranger to politics as a form of florid, personal self-expression, and all the intricate rules that grass-roots organizers love. "You can't run a presidential campaign by group consensus ," says Zeese.

In a Hyatt meeting room, 20 or so have gathered for the women's caucus meeting. In this portion men are not allowed. The women begin with introductions; each gets to speak for a minute; rules are tightly enforced. What they say is not personal, in the usual sense, as in "I'm from California and have two kids."

"I'm interested in how the system works to disenfranchise women" is a common intro. Medea Benjamin talks about how President Bush keeps women scared as a way to justify the war on terrorism. Terri Baum, who ran against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), says, "As a lesbian I feel isolated."

To be called on, people do not raise hands but twinkle their fingers. One woman requests to go beyond the agreed-upon minute. "Can we get consensus for one more minute?" someone asks. "A second?" "Any objections for another minute?" By that point three minutes have gone by. There are lots of "points of clarification for the minutes."

Morgen D'Arc, who is running the meeting, prowls the room, her eyes shaded by masses of curls gone gray. The real drama seems to be taking place outside. There is, of course, a splinter group. Some women say D'Arc has usurped the group's leadership, that she has banned them. They have printed up fliers to this effect. "Not Enough Democracy!" they say, although there couldn't be more.

The room is full now that men have been allowed to join. Sitting in the back, humbly obscured, is the Green Party's other candidate for president, David Cobb.

"Hey, I know you," he says to another reporter. "You slept on my futon, man," and sits for an interview.

Cobb is what counts in the Green Party as Clintonian; he grew up in a shrimping village on the Texas Gulf Coast in a house with no flush toilet. People here say he speaks like a preacher. He wears khakis, stained with coffee, and an open neck shirt; once this weekend he put on a tie.

He describes himself as a "male feminist, white anti-racist ally." He reminds himself often that "white privilege exists and male privilege exists." For a running mate he considered only women, and chose Patricia LaMarche.

Cobb ran Nader's campaign in Texas in 2000 and speaks highly of him. "Nader has done more to influence my life than any human being who's not related to me. He's a public icon and one of my personal heroes," says Cobb. "But it's a question of institutional self-respect."

Cobb has developed a strategy he calls "smart growth." In safe states, those that are locked up for Bush or John Kerry, he tells Greens to vote Green. In battleground states, he says, "Vote your conscience," which is understood to mean hold your nose and vote for Kerry.

"John Kerry is a corporatist militarist, but George Bush is a genuine threat to the planet," he says.

Saturday morning in a conference center near the hotel the voting begins. It may be a convention but there are no balloons, no music, just a video of the ocean and a thumb stroking some flowers. There's one flag but it has a peace sign where the stars should be. About half of the guys onstage sport ponytails; none is wearing a suit.

Over three days the fight between Cobb and Nader and all their proxies has gotten nastier. Cobb's people pointed out Camejo had once run on a Socialist Party ticket. Nader's camp accused them of red baiting. Each accused the other of secretly shilling for Kerry. Nader finally did call Friday night, and on a speakerphone broadcast to his supporters described the choice as one between "fear and fortitude."

But on this final morning a truce has been reached. Whatever happens, both Camejo and Cobb promise to leave the convention hall "arm in arm."

States come up one by one to announce their votes. The delegates introduce their states opposite from the usual way, listing points of shame instead of pride. "Tennessee, the first Superfund site." Or Utah, "where you can have multiple wives." Sometimes they mention obscure ecology projects in the works, to great applause. Someone in the Minnesota delegation votes for Eugene V. Debs, the socialist hero, also to great applause.

In the first round no one gets a majority. In the second round, the candidates have narrowed and Cobb's votes are ticking up. California, the mother ship of the Green Party, gives him 22 more votes. That's when his supporters know and start cheering wildly. The honors are saved for Texas, his home state, which puts him over the top.

The meaning is clear to everyone; the Greens have picked one of their own.

"The Green Party has gotten out from under the shadow of the man who casts a larger shadow than any other American," says Cobb.

Ralph Nader's running mate, Peter Camejo, listens as Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb speaks at the party convention in Milwaukee.Green Party supporters, from left, Tom Fusco of Brunswick, Maine; Charles Law of Reno; John Rensenbrink of Maine; Joe Fortunato of New Jersey; and Holly Hart of Iowa City, Iowa, converse at the party's convention in Milwaukee.

Ralph Nader skipped the Greens' convention but phoned in.