msnbc.com
updated 6/25/2004 9:12:33 AM ET 2004-06-25T13:12:33

White House Derby moves Ralph Nader up in our latest assessment of the presidential race. Don’t misunderstand: We don’t think Nader will win this election, we only mean to signal that his candidacy is becoming an increasingly worrisome factor for Democrats in the battle for the White House.

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How else to explain two remarkable events this week? First, Nader met with members of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus and got the kind of welcome that George Wallace or Strom Thurmond might have received in their segregationist heydays.

Reporters heard angry shouts from inside the meeting room, with one voice saying, “You can't win!”

“I think he has too much arrogance to say he's going to get out of the race,” said caucus leader Rep. Elijah Cummings in a post-battle report.

“That itself is a fairly arrogant statement,” Nader shot back.

In the second and more significant development, Arizona Democrats filed suit Wednesday to keep Nader’s name off the ballot in that state (where 10 electoral votes are at stake).

Democrats charged that most of the signatures Nader submitted on his petitions to get on the ballot were invalid.

'Not speaking' for Kerry
Arizona Democratic Party chief Jim Pederson said, "We are not speaking for the Kerry campaign, we are not speaking for the Democratic National Committee.”

Not “speaking for” Kerry — but surely working to help him.

If Democratic Party chiefs in other key states all independently arrive at the same conclusion — tie Nader down with court challenges — they could keep him mired in legal bogs from Maine to New Mexico, leaving him less time and money to appeal to voters.

The race still shapes up as battle of two underwhelming rivals: In national polls ever since January, the lead has see-sawed back and forth between Kerry and President Bush.

State polls offer a murky picture: Democratic candidate Al Gore carried Pennsylvania by 4 percentage points in 2000, so it seems baffling that even the weakened Bush is drawing 43 percent to Kerry’s 44 percent and Nader’s 7 percent in the Quinnipiac University poll of Pennsylvania voters released Thursday.

Next door in New Jersey, a state Gore won by 16 percentage points in 2000, Kerry has a modest six-point lead over Bush, according to this week’s Quinnipiac survey.

Who should Kerry choose?TheNaderFactor.com, a group that is trying to woo would-be Nader voters and headed by Tricia Enright, a former Howard Dean campaign staffer, Chris Kofinis and John Hlinko, former officials in the Wesley Clark campaign, hit the nail on the head this week in their open letter to Nader.

Push to the right?
“You suggested that Democrats would be better off working to win back the 8 million conservative Democrats who supported George W. Bush in 2000. How can this realistically be done with without pushing the party further to the right and jeopardizing the very progressive agenda you are fighting for?”

That’s the balancing Kerry must do: wooing and holding some of the Nader progressive voters, while not foreclosing support from disaffected “Bush Democrats.”

There are still votes up for grabs in the middle of the spectrum: The Pew Research Center reported this week that 17 percent of likely voters are either undecided or, having expressed a preference, say there is a chance they could change their mind.

Perhaps as part of his appeal to that undecided middle, Kerry has taken to praising Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail.

"We just lost a president who helped us to win the Cold War, to provide us the continued peace and prosperity we had all those years," Kerry said in a speech Wednesday.

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