Ralph Nader would like your autograph.

In fact, he needs it. The longtime consumer advocate, who is running for president as an independent, must collect hundreds of thousands of signatures from voters across the country to get his name on state ballots for the Nov. 2 election.

It is a daunting task -- despite hand-wringing from Democrats that his campaign could affect the outcome of the presidential race -- that stands between Nader and his chances of becoming a significant factor in the election.

The requirement stems from state laws that were designed to prevent frivolous candidates from cluttering the ballots.

Each state has its own standards -- different signature requirements, deadlines and time limits. Some are rather strict. Texas, for example, requires candidates to collect 64,076 valid signatures within two months, beginning on March 10. It also requires those signatures to be from registered voters who did not vote in the state's Democratic or Republican presidential primary earlier this year.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Tennessee, which requires just 25 signatures -- although that number is expected to be increased to 275 soon. New Jersey wants 800. The state of Washington asks for 1,000. Both Colorado and Louisiana will waive their 5,000-signature requirement if Nader pays a $500 fee.

The District asks for fewer than 4,000 signatures; Maryland, about 28,000; and Virginia, 10,000.

In all, Nader will need about 620,000 valid signatures to reach his goal of getting on the ballot in all 50 states, according to Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News and a leading authority on the topic. Nader will actually need many more than that, because scores of signatures will probably be disqualified for a variety of reasons. Winger said Nader needs to aim for about 900,000 signatures to clear the bar nationwide; the candidate has estimated that he will need 1.5 million.

Nader repeatedly denounces the signature requirement -- from which the major parties' nominees are exempt -- as unfair. "There's a tremendous bias in state laws against third parties and independent candidates bred by the two major parties, who pass these laws," Nader said, when he announced his candidacy in February on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"They don't like competition. So it's like climbing a cliff with a slippery rope," he said.

Nader's campaign has focused its efforts on states with particularly stringent rules: Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Illinois. It has been recruiting volunteers online and at campaign stops, asking them to fan out to churches, post offices and other public venues to urge voters to sign their petitions. The campaign said it has recruited about 7,000 volunteers so far.

"We might be able to do it with the 7,000 we already have," said Kevin Zeese, Nader's spokesman. "We could certainly use more. I would love to see us having 15,000. But I think a 7,000 base is pretty good to start with."

Most states' deadlines are not until summer. But Nader's campaign faces its first test of support next week in Oregon, where it will try to qualify for the ballot in a single day. The state gives candidates such as Nader an option: collect 15,306 signatures before Aug. 24 or collect signatures from 1,000 registered voters attending a nominating convention. The Nader campaign has opted for the latter, scheduling an event in Portland on Monday.

Nader's task would be easier if he accepted the presidential nomination of one of the minor parties that already have spaces reserved on some states' ballots. Some members of the Green Party, which has yet to choose its presidential candidate, want to support Nader. The Green Party nomination would give access to ballots in 23 states, thanks to the party's performance in previous elections. The Reform Party, founded by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, has offered Nader its top spot, along with its seven ballot spots. The Natural Law Party is also considering giving him its nomination and 12 ballot lines, according to John Hegelin, the group's former presidential candidate.

But Zeese said Nader will not accept any of those nominations because he does not want to be too closely associated with any one party, even if it would give him an edge in the chase for signatures. "Ralph sees himself as an independent," Zeese said. "I think what happens is that when you pick one party, you're defined by that party. . . . Rather than being defined by that party, we define ourselves."

Zeese added that Nader hopes to appeal to a broad spectrum of third-party voters and would accept their organizations' support, volunteers and ballot lines. "It's more powerful to have a coalition of third parties come together and say: We are joined together to challenge the duopoly," Zeese said.

However, Nader will run with at least one party -- his own. The candidate recently created the Populist Party, under whose banner he will run in states that require fewer signatures from new parties than they do from individual candidates. In North Carolina, for example, election officials ask for about 100,000 signatures from independent candidates but fewer than 60,000 from people organizing new parties.

In 2000, when he was the Green Party's nominee, Nader won the votes of more than 2.8 million voters -- including enough in two states, Democrats have complained, to throw the election to George W. Bush. This year, his campaign lacks not only the organizational muscle of the Green Party but also is relying on volunteers rather than paid signature gatherers.

In addition, Nader has earned the ire of many of his erstwhile supporters, who argue that he ought to focus exclusively on defeating President Bush. Democrats, some of whom in previous years may have been tempted by Nader's leftist platform, appear to be unusually unified behind the candidacy of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.).

Zeese said he did not know whether such sentiments have affected the Nader campaign's petition drives. "I don't know yet -- it's too soon to say," he said. Zeese rejected suggestions that Republican officials might help the campaign gather signatures. "We have had no contact with the Republican Party," he said.

One recent poll suggests that Nader's support has tumbled. The survey, which was conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that 21 percent of the public has a favorable opinion of Nader, while 37 percent does not. In 2000, the poll found 24 percent saying they had a favorable opinion of Nader and 24 percent saying they did not.

Nader has said he will appeal this year to disgruntled conservatives and independents. Yesterday, he posted an "Open Letter to Conservatives Upset With the Policies of the Bush Administration," inviting them to join his independent campaign.

Even though Nader denounces the signature requirement as unfair, Zeese said the petition exercise has its upside. "Ralph's approach is to use the signature gathering hurdle as an opportunity to organize and to gather volunteers," he said. "He's trying to turn this challenge into an opportunity -- an opportunity to build a political base."

Ralph Nader talks to students in Winchester, Va., about his independent bid for the presidency. He must gather signatures to get on state ballots all over the country.