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Warning Signs

Ralph Nader's decision to run for president as an independent caused Democrats to have heart palpitations and made Republicans euphoric. But just the opposite was the case five days earlier, when, for the first time since 1991, Democrats captured a Republican seat in a House special election.

With the closeness of the 2000 presidential election still fresh in most voters' minds, Nader is unlikely to attract as much support as he did last time. Yet he still might collect enough votes to tip the balance in President Bush's favor.

In 2000, the country was polarized along the lines of pro-Clinton/Gore and anti-Clinton/Gore. This time, the camps are pro-Bush/Cheney and anti-Bush/Cheney. In 2000, George W. Bush was well positioned as a "compassionate conservative," and all but the most liberal and partisan Democrats generally saw him as unthreatening. Today, Bush is widely reviled among Democrats.

My hunch is that the most regret-plagued people in America are the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Nader in 2000. I doubt that many had the slightest interest in helping Bush win the White House, and I suspect that most of them are militantly anti-Bush today. While some of Nader's Florida voters might not have cast ballots or might have found other fringe candidates to support if Nader had not been on the ballot, at least 35 percent would have voted for Gore, I'd wager. (To be fair, had Gore won Florida by 537 votes instead of lost it by that many, every one of the 17,484 Floridians who voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Bush would have had to be on a suicide watch for having caused a Gore presidency.)

Virtually all strategists in both parties predict that this presidential election is going to be very close, because the country remains evenly and deeply divided along ideological and partisan lines as well as over Bush's performance as president. My hunch is that very few ideologues are likely to throw their vote away by casting it for someone other than a major party's nominee.

But even if Nader receives only one-half or one-third of the 2.8 million votes (2.7 percent) that he won last time, he still could hand Bush the election. Judging by the 2000 results, Nader did cost the Democrats both Florida and New Hampshire. (The Democrats lost Missouri and Ohio by a little more than the Nader vote.) And Nader almost cost the Democrats Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, all of which they won.

Meanwhile, both parties are spinning the significance of the Democrats' special-election victory in Kentucky. Former state Attorney General Ben Chandler beat Republican state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, 55 percent to 43 percent, in a district that Bush carried with 55 percent of the vote. Republicans suggest that Chandler was a far superior candidate to Kerr and had a huge head start from his recent unsuccessful run for governor. All that's true. But it's also true that if Bush were at the top of his game, the stronger candidate might have lost. Bush is still quite popular in Kentucky, but he's not strong enough to pull a weak candidate to victory. GOP strategists shrewdly decided to keep Bush out of the district to try to keep the outcome from being interpreted as a rejection of his leadership.

On June 1, very Republican South Dakota will hold a special election to fill the at-large House seat vacated by Republican Rep. Bill Janklow. As in Kentucky, Democrats are backing a candidate who recently ran a very respectable race. Stephanie Herseth lost to Janklow in 2002, 46 percent to 53 percent. And, like Chandler, she has a head start in both name recognition and campaign organization.

But the Republican nominee in South Dakota is considerably more established than Kerr was in Kentucky. Larry Diedrich is a seven-year veteran of the Legislature and a a former president of the American Soybean Association. Still, like Kerr, he lacks high name recognition. Diedrich has the benefit of a longer campaign than Kerr had, but he's still in a race against the clock. The most recent poll showed Herseth with a huge lead, 58 percent to 29 percent. The poll also showed Bush, who carried South Dakota with 60 percent in 2000, ahead of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts by just 50 percent to 39 percent.

Just as Nader's candidacy sets off alarms among Democrats, House Republicans -- still heavily favored to hold their chamber -- ought to see these two special elections as a warning that they cannot count on Bush's having long coattails even if he is strong enough to win a second term.

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