Kerry, Nader hold `useful' meeting

Presidential candidates sidestep question of independent's quitting

May 20, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As carefully staged as a Cold War summit, Sen. John Kerry held long-delayed talks yesterday with Ralph Nader, whose independent candidacy is a threat to the Democrat's chances of unseating President Bush.

Their discussion barely touched on the growing antiwar sentiment that Nader hopes to tap and avoided entirely the question of what it might take for him to quit the race.

Nader, who posed for pictures inside with Kerry but uncharacteristically avoided reporters outside, issued a statement calling the session "productive and positive." Kerry campaign aide Steve Elmendorf described it as "very friendly" and "useful."

In a telephone interview, Nader said the talks revolved largely around issues on which both agree, including "ending corporate welfare as we know it" and avoiding "a repeat of the Katherine Harris situation," a reference to the disputed Florida vote count in the last presidential election.

Nader said he "very briefly" brought up Iraq during the hour-long session. He has advocated the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, a position backed by a growing number of Americans but strongly opposed by Kerry, who says more U.S. troops might be needed.

Nader brushed aside his decision to avoid making the war a major topic of conversation by noting that Kerry "didn't get us into Iraq." Earlier in the week, Nader was quoted as saying that Iraq was a subject the two men couldn't ignore.

Nader said Kerry didn't ask him to abandon the race.

"He did not [ask], and I did not expect him to," said Nader.

Many Democrats blame Nader for costing Al Gore the presidency in 2000 and fear a repeat this fall if he doesn't get out.

"Nader's got a very simple thing he's saying, which is `Bring the troops home,'" former Clinton strategist James Carville told a group of reporters yesterday. "Would I be happy if he got out? No. I'd be ecstatic."

Nader says he's in the race for good, but how far he'll carry his campaign isn't clear.

Last week, he received a significant lift when he was endorsed by the national Reform Party, giving him a chance to place his name on ballots in seven states, including the key battlegrounds of Florida and Michigan. However, he has not said whether he'll take full advantage of that opportunity.

Recent polling has found that Nader might hold the key to the outcome in a number of states where the race is a virtual dead heat. National surveys find Bush's poll numbers falling and Kerry pulling ahead.

During the meeting, Nader said he's helping defeat the president by amplifying the anti-Bush message, Elmendorf said.

Kerry wants to persuade voters that Nader's candidacy makes Bush's re-election more likely.

"In the end, I hope I can make people aware that a vote for Ralph Nader is a vote for George Bush," Kerry told the Associated Press. "A vote for John Kerry is a vote for the principles and values they care about."

Nader has yet to take an irrevocable step that could undermine Kerry's candidacy. He hasn't qualified for any state ballot and could choose to leave his name off in states where his vote might hurt Kerry's chances.

Even Nader's decision to avoid the microphones and cameras yesterday had the effect of limiting publicity from the meeting - and potential damage to the Democrat - though he insisted that wasn't his intention.

"I don't dodge the press," said Nader, who said he merely didn't want to clog the downtown sidewalk outside Kerry headquarters. His press spokesman blamed security concerns for Nader's refusal to appear.

The meeting, which Nader had sought for about two months, might have been a carrot dangled by the Kerry camp toward a longtime ally turned rival. But a Stop Nader movement that surfaced at the same time appears to be the stick Democrats will use against the 70-year-old liberal activist.

The National Progress Fund, which the Kerry campaign called an independent Democratic group, said it plans to run TV ads attacking Nader in key states. Among its officials is former Howard Dean campaign spokeswoman Tricia Enright, who showed up outside the building during the meeting.

Nader, who learned of the group's existence from a reporter, said such a campaign against him "would be a mistake." Democrats should focus their money instead on winning back millions of voters who defected to Bush in 2000, rather than "carping" and "whining" about his candidacy, he said.

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