Virginia's local voter registrars are still sorting out petitions submitted by Ralph Nader to determine whether he qualifies to be on the November ballot as a presidential candidate. State election officials say they will decide soon whether Nader's supporters have collected the required 10,000 signatures.

That leaves time for the rest of us to sort out why the mere possibility of a Nader candidacy in Virginia seems to have gotten the Republican and Democratic parties in the state so fired up.

Last week the Republican attorney general, Jerry W. Kilgore -- who also happens to be the chairman of President Bush's reelection campaign in Virginia -- gave Nader's bid a helping hand by overruling the election board's initial decision to reject the petitions.

That caused Democrats in the state to boil over, accusing Nader and the GOP of colluding to get the third-party candidate on the ballot. Democrats, on behalf of the John F. Kerry presidential campaign, lodged protests with the state elections board and its top official, Jean R. Jensen, a former head of the state Democratic Party.

Both sides claim they are free of political motives.

Jensen said recently that in the two-plus years that she has served as the state's top election official, "I've never done anything for partisan reasons. I wouldn't have any credibility. The agency wouldn't have any credibility."

Kilgore's office, too, said its actions were prompted only by a desire to strictly interpret the law. "This was just regulations that were never formally adopted," Kilgore spokesman Tucker Martin said of the ruling the office invalidated.

But both Kilgore and Jensen are acting within the greater context of a national election that pollsters say may be as close as the one in 2000. Nationally, Democrats are fighting to keep Nader off state ballots and Republicans are fighting to get him on.

Everyone, it seems, remembers 2000, when votes for Nader appeared to steal just enough support from Democrat Al Gore to give Bush a slim victory in several states. Democrats don't want that to happen again. Republicans would be happy if it did.

The threat -- or opportunity -- that a Nader campaign represents has taken on new importance in Virginia for one reason: the perception, true or not, that the senator from Massachusetts is within striking distance of winning the state's 13 electoral votes.

For 40 years, no Democratic presidential candidate has won in Virginia. The last one to do so was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

But, this year, Kerry began by spending several hundred thousand dollars on television advertisements in the state, and he has built a state campaign with two major offices and more than two dozen permanent staff members. Senior officials in Kerry's campaign say they can win the state by appealing to veterans, Southside and southwestern voters and Northern Virginians.

A Zogby International poll released Aug. 23 showed Bush with 49 percent of the vote, Kerry with 48 percent, and the remaining percentage for other candidates, including Nader. The polling group said that Virginia is "within striking distance" for Democrats and that "a win here for Mr. Kerry would all but seal the election."

That's probably overstated. Bush campaign strategists are quick to say their candidate beat Gore by 8 percentage points four years ago. Robert D. Holsworth, a professor of politics at Virginia Commonwealth University, points out that early polls have often overstated Democratic support in Virginia.

Michael Dukakis "was running close at one point" in polling during the 1988 campaign, Holsworth noted recently. Bill Clinton was close twice, he said.

What really matters, Holsworth said, is how the race is shaping up in October, not August. If Kerry is still spending money in the state then, the debate over Nader could have serious meaning.

Nader's campaign manager in Virginia, Jim Polk, rejects the argument that Nader could "steal" votes away from Kerry or Bush. "The votes don't belong to anyone except the voters," Polk said.

But if the race is close as the election winds down, Nader's presence in Virginia just might spell the difference between a Kerry presidency and another four years for Bush.