Portland, Ore. As Vice President Al Gore's motorcade pulled into town, scores of supporters of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader waved signs, blew whistles and screamed behind a police line, threatening to drown out Gore's speech on a street corner, one block away.
Homemade signs bounced in the crisp air Tuesday night: "No more Republi-crats!" and "Not Gore-Again!" and "Let Ralph Debate!" A similar crowd greeted Gore Wednesday as he arrived at Portland State University to talk with elderly people and medical workers about his plans for health care.
The Gore campaign largely ignored the protests and aides to the Democratic candidate maintained that they're unconcerned about Nader. But one message is growing clear: In states such as Oregon and Washington, where polls show Gore and Republican George W. Bush in tight races, Nader's third-party candidacy has become a factor.
One poll has shown Nader winning as much as 7 percent of Oregon's voters, nowhere near enough votes to be a true contender but more than enough to affect the outcome.
"Nader could control the election in this state," said Joe Keating, a Nader supporter who also leads Oregon's branch of the Sierra Club, the national environmental group that has endorsed Gore for president. "The buzz on the street is that unless Gore does something that actually defines his position better on the environment and on large corporations, he's going to lose here."
Some Democratic leaders in Oregon acknowledge nervousness about how Nader could cut into likely Gore voters, and wind up helping Bush. The Republicans, meanwhile, are amused.
With glee, the head of Oregon's Republican Party recalled a Nader rally last week. More than 10,500 people filled the city's Memorial Coliseum, making it Nader's biggest campaign event yet.
"Gore has tremendous problems if (Nader) was able to get that many people to the stadium," said Darryl Howard, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party. "That many people paid $7 to watch him. They paid to watch a politician speak. Think about it."
Washington and Oregon, whose residents have voted similarly in presidential races since 1972, are progressive-leaning places. Although their local and statewide election patterns reveal an independent streak, voters in both states have favored Democratic candidates for president in the past three elections.
This year, polls taken before the Democratic convention showed Bush slightly ahead, a serious threat for Gore, given historic expectations that he would capture both states.
Nader carries a natural appeal for some voters here with his opposition to existing international free-trade policies, to big corporations and to television shows filled with advertisements aimed at children. He had one of his best results in Oregon four years ago, winning 4 percent of the vote.
Though Gore is considered by many a strong environmentalist and has won the endorsements of several conservation groups, Nader has put environmentalism at the top of his list.
Nader supporters in Oregon say Gore has pro-environmental "rhetoric" while failing on action. Nader has made a centerpiece of his campaign of ending old-growth logging (trees at least 180 years old) on federal lands, an environmental position that has strong local interest and support.
"Gore would have to come out with some major environmental positions in order to put a dent into the Nader vibration," said the Sierra Club's Keating.
But experts caution against the notion that Nader will draw votes exclusively from Gore's camp. Tim Hibbitts, a Portland pollster, said polls indicate that about half of Nader's supporters say they would pick Gore as a second choice. The other half of the 7 percent who picked Nader in a poll earlier this year said they wouldn't pick any other candidate.
Those voters, Hibbitts said, may not vote in most elections or they may always vote for third-party candidates. In either case, they don't take votes from Gore's camp.
"Obviously, Nader is not good for Gore," said Hibbitts. "But it's a lot more complicated."