Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader was struggling to string together enough votes to reach his target of 5 percent of the national vote, early election returns indicated. His goal appeared threatened by last-minute defections to Vice President Gore.
Nader pressed his supporters in the campaign's final days to stay the anti-establishment course and vote neither Republican nor Democratic. He called the candidates Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum, insisting that a vote for the "lesser of two evils" would leave the country with evil.
But some prospective Nader supporters whose liberal views are closer to Gore's than to Texas Gov. George W. Bush decided sometimes at the last minute that the risk of throwing the race to Bush was too great.
"I was waiting for Gore to take a lead in the polls before I'd vote for Nader. He never did. I had to vote for Al," said Pittsburgh physician Eric Rodriguez, who reported that several colleagues made the same decision. "They said they couldn't afford to waste their vote this year."
New Jersey resident Sally Paduch agonized late, decided late and voted late Tuesday. As much as she wanted to help Nader reach 5 percent and create a strong, liberal third party voice, the prospect of a Bush presidency drove her back to Gore.
"I just don't want to take any chances," said Paduch, who lives in Glen Ridge.
Nader's immediate aim was to reach the 5 percent threshhold that would qualify the fledgling Green Party for federal campaign funding in 2004. He counted on New England, the West Coast and parts of the Midwest for his greatest support.
His campaign began in the shadows. At the Green Party nominating convention in Denver, with barely $1 million in the bank, supporters passed the hat. California delegates contributed $665, the Rhode Island delegates $130. The party charged $10 admission to its largest rallies.
By the end of the campaign, the Greens had raised more than $7 million, but the candidate flew commercial. On Monday, election eve, while Gore and Bush were criss-crossing the country in the jetstream, Nader and an aide hailed a taxi in Washington for the ride to the airport and a flight to New York City.
Nader's national support seemed stuck at 3 to 4 percent, but as Bush prospered, Gore stumbled and Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan all but disappeared, the longtime consumer advocate became a player in states considered critical to the vice president's campaign.
In Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest, in particular, Nader's candidacy was seen as a threat to Gore. The campaign's waning days saw high-profile visits from Gore supporters and a flurry of appeals to Nader to defer to the Democrat-including barbs and pleas from colleagues whose allegiance to Nader was decades old.
As he staged rallies from the West Coast to the East in the final week, Nader reveled in the attention and remained unapologetic. Asked again and again whether he was prepared to throw the race to Bush by siphoning votes from Gore, Nader said his goal stretched further than one election.
This campaign will create a "viable" third party, Nader argued, that will put activist candidates from the grassroots into government and provide an alternative to what he considers an ossified two-party system. It will, he said, "make the two parties more honest and more responsive."