WASHINGTON -- The Democratic Party's powerful legal corps, mobilized for action in Florida ever since the 2000 recount, struck with fury in a Tallahassee courtroom last week. Helped by a cooperative judge, the Democratic lawyers scored a temporary victory. The adversary was not the Republican Party but Ralph Nader, the lawyers getting his independent presidential candidacy off the ballot for now. That is part of a larger struggle with unintended negative consequences for John Kerry's campaign.
Florida is just the latest skirmish. Hundreds of Democratic lawyers, organized to enter the courts against George W. Bush on Election Day, now are busy denying Nader ballot access everywhere they can. The mighty General Motors Corp. unleashed a fierce personal attack on Nader when he was a crusading young consumer lawyer, and GM ended up losing the public relations war. Nader sees Democrats making the same mistake.
Whether or not Nader's prediction proves accurate, a more concrete problem faces Democrats. The party's limitation of Nader's ballot access has been most successful in non-battleground states. That keeps the independent candidate away from states where either President Bush or Sen. Kerry will win easily. Nader then is forced to concentrate on closely contested states where he could take away enough votes from Kerry to carry them for Bush, conceivably giving him a second term.
The Democrats have been able to keep Nader out of these states: Arizona, California, Illinois, Mississippi, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia (with only Arizona in the battleground category). Since Nader is not running to be elected but to preach a left-wing gospel that he feels Kerry neglects, he would have campaigned in all these states were he permitted on their ballots. Until thrown off in Texas, Nader planned heavy campaigning against the president in his own state. His campaign was going to open an office in Crawford, Bush's hometown.
It is not that Democratic lawyers have ignored closely contested states, witness what happened last week in battleground Florida. The Nader campaign was taken by surprise in Tallahassee, without a lawyer to face 10 Democratic attorneys and a judge willing to accept all their arguments. Nevertheless, the odds are that Nader's name will end up on the Florida ballot.
Despite Democratic obstruction, Nader definitely will be drawing votes from Kerry in these contested states: Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and West Virginia. Besides Florida, Nader expects also to get on the ballot in the battleground states of New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In addition to forcing Nader to concentrate on contested states, the Democratic Party's ballot attack permits criticism of the party's undemocratic methods liable to have resonance with left-of-center voters. "By pushing the Jim Crow methods of denying our ballot access," Nader told me, "they are violating the sense of fair play by the American people. They are saying we are too poor and too small to be allowed on the ballot."
Why, then, would the Democratic Party deploy its legal brigade to keep Nader off the ballot everywhere? Because animosity toward Nader by Democratic activists is so intense that it approaches the anti-Bush hysteria. His lifetime of left-wing advocacy is forgotten, as Democratic loyalists can only remember the votes they claim he took away from Gore in 2000.
When Nader and Kerry met during the summer, Nader said, the senator boasted about how many lawyers were ready to plead the Democratic cause -- not indicating that they would be directed against the old consumer advocate. Some seven weeks ago, Nader said he met with Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe. According to Nader's account, McAuliffe said he had no command authority over the lawyers. When Nader said they were "out of control," the party chairman told him: "I'll look into it."
Over the past two months, McAuliffe has not gotten back to Nader or returned his telephone calls. Nor did he return my call.
The Democrats are the party of trial lawyers, and their skill and tenacity exerted against Ralph Nader is in character. John Kerry and Terry McAuliffe might well ponder whether their anti-Nader crusade is a blessing for their real nemesis, George W. Bush.