Ralph Nader has long been the face of the Green Party, which twice nominated him to be its presidential candidate. But his decision to run for president this year as an independent has offended many of his old allies, who are agonizing over whether to support Nader again or back a little-known party activist named David Cobb.
The organization will not select its candidate until next month, when it holds its presidential convention in Milwaukee. But the Greens' decision could have a profound impact on Nader's campaign -- especially his fight to get his name on the nation's ballots -- and on the party's future. Nader is a wild card in the contest between President Bush and Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) -- as he was in 2000, when many Democrats believe Nader cost Vice President Al Gore the White House. In attempting to broaden his independent political base this year, Nader is shunning a close association with the Green Party .
He announced in December that, for the first time since 1996, he will not run for president under the Green Party's banner. Since then, he has said he wants to appeal to a broad swath of disaffected voters -- and does not want to be too closely associated with any party.
In an interview this week in which he offered a broad ranging critique of the party, Nader complained that the Greens are riven with "these unbelievable schisms" and that "they are not exerting themselves enough" in recruiting candidates for federal, state and local offices around the country.
"It's too slow," he said. "There comes a point when they have to look at themselves and say: If we are concerned about the state of the country and the world, why are we not commensurately serious in terms of our willingness to raise money and to field candidates and to support those candidates?"
Nader says he would not accept the Greens' presidential nomination if it were offered to him, but he would accept its endorsement, a less formal expression of support.
That endorsement would be a boon to his campaign. Like all independent presidential hopefuls, Nader must collect hundreds of thousands of signatures to get his name on the nation's ballots. Thus far, his campaign has had mixed success. Nader was endorsed by the Reform Party last week, which will give him the chance to use the spaces the group has reserved on seven states' ballots.
But the announcement came on the heels of a series of setbacks. Last month, he failed to qualify in Oregon, a state that was considered one of his strongholds. Weeks later, the Mountain Party in West Virginia, a minor party that could have given him its ballot line for this year's election, voted against supporting him. Nader can still qualify in both states, but he must launch new petition campaigns there. He also fell short in Texas, which has some of the nation's toughest ballot rules. His campaign has filed suit there, claiming those requirements are unconstitutional.
The Green Party, meanwhile, has ballot lines in 23 states, thanks to its performance in previous elections. With an endorsement, Nader could ask individual state parties to place his name on their respective ballots and to provide him with additional organizational muscle.
Green Party members are divided over whether to accept Nader on his terms. Some members have argued that the party should break with Nader and nominate Cobb, a 41-year-old lawyer from California who has pledged to devote most of his energies to building the party.
"The reason many of us supported Nader four years ago was because one of his avowed goals was to help build a third party in the Greens," said Jeff Peterson, an elementary school teacher and party activist from Wisconsin who ran for lieutenant governor in 2002. "He seems to have abandoned his interest in that quest."
Moreover, Peterson said, that endorsement could hurt the party, since some states require minor parties to run nominated -- rather than endorsed -- presidential candidates to keep or win places on the ballot. That, he said, has forced Greens to choose between Nader -- a candidate he said many otherwise admire and "one of the best in the country at articulating many of our Green issues" -- and their organization's welfare.
But other Greens are unwilling to part company with Nader, and they note that the consumer advocate and antiwar figure who shares many of the party's policy views on the war in Iraq and the need for corporate reform is much better known than Cobb. His endorsement would probably bring the oft-ignored party far more media coverage than would a Cobb campaign. Nader received 2.8 million votes in 2000 and has raised a lot of money for the party.
"There is a difference [between] the standing of Ralph Nader before the American people and the standing of David Cobb -- day and night," said Peter Camejo, a former Green Party gubernatorial candidate in California who is campaigning on Nader's behalf. "We'll recruit more people, more supporters. His last campaign led to a very rapid growth of the Green Party all over -- many more candidates, many more people supporting the Green Party."
But Cobb, who helped found the Texas Green Party, has been campaigning for months, arguing that he is more committed to helping build the party.
"We're very hard pressed to try to accomplish the goal of increasing Green Party registration when the party is not having a candidate and instead endorsing somebody who has said that he doesn't want to participate in the party," Cobb said. "I'm committed to growing and building the Green Party."