MADISON, Wis.-- Up a dingy flight of stairs over a nondescript eatery off the University of Wisconsin campus, the insurgency known as the Ralph Nader campaign mobilizes for Election Day barely a week from now.
It is just one of many local Green Party headquarters around the country, but its location on what might be called the sacred ground of old-time liberalism gives it particular significance.
Madison still has a warm and strong heart for the political left wing in various guises. In the tradition of Bob LaFollette, his sons and the Progressive movement going back to the early 1900s, varieties survive in small patches -- not only environmentalist "greens" but also socialists and even a few communists .
Perhaps more than in any other single state, Mr. Nader's new raiders are working overtime. While unrealistically they will not concede that Mr. Nader won't be the next president, they acknowledge that their practical goal is achieving at least 5 percent of the national vote on Nov. 7. That showing will assure the Green Party yet-undetermined millions of dollars for its presidential nominee in 2004, and what they argue can be a major step toward establishing a truly viable third party.
By turning out a large vote here in Madison and also in inner-city precincts in Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Naderites hope to help achieve that immediate goal. With their eyes on it, they display little patience with, or concern about, the warning of Vice President Al Gore's camp that "a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."
Ben Manski, the campaign's Wisconsin coordinator, is a 26-year-old U. of Wisconsin graduate who already has spent nearly a decade in activist politics and who narrowly lost a race for the Dade County (Fla.) board of supervisors four years ago.
A Green-Progressive Alliance in Madison holds eight of the 20 seats on the city council and other local offices and has been in business here since the early 1980s.
"It's hard to understand where they're coming from when they make that argument," he says. The idea that if there were no Nader candidacy, all or most of his votes would go to Mr. Gore is nonsense, he says. "The Nader vote has no bearing on Gore or Bush. If there were no Nader, a lot of us wouldn't vote."
The Nader forces here created a mini-stir late last month when they "occupied" the Gore headquarters for about five hours, demanding that Mr. Nader be included in the presidential debates.
Police were called and the "invaders" left quietly, with no arrests made. "It was huge overreacting," Mr. Manski says. When Mr. Gore addressed a huge rally here Thursday, the Naderites again protested, but in an orderly fashion.
Another Nader volunteer, 22-year-old U. of Wisconsin student Sara Fuller, cast her first presidential vote for Bill Clinton in 1996, when he comfortably carried Wisconsin for the second time. She says that in spite of the good economy, she's disappointed in Mr. Clinton's personal conduct "and Bush is worse."
As for a vote for Mr. Nader being a vote for Mr. Bush, she responds: "A vote for Bush is a vote for Gore" -- meaning there's no real difference between them as far as she's concerned.
The Nader effort here is more than a youth movement.
Mary Dial, 76, was chair of a local Reform Party committee for two years before quitting upon the party's national takeover by Pat Buchanan. "A vote for Nader is a vote for Nader," she insists. "I'll vote my conscience just as Gov. Jesse Ventura [of neighboring Minnesota] says." Rather than vote for Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush, she says, "I'd write my own name in. They only say what's expected of them."
A statewide poll last week gave Mr. Nader only 5 percent of the vote, but his backers point to Ross Perot's 22 percent as an independent in Wisconsin in 1992 as an indication of what could happen here. It may be a pipe dream, or it could be a nightmare for Mr. Gore, costing him the state's 11 electoral votes in an election in which every single one is expected to be critical.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover generally write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).