Washington In a pre-election twist, Republicans are buying TV ads featuring Ralph Nader in states where votes for the Green Party candidate might tip the outcome to George W. Bush.
The ads use clips of Nader attacking Democrat Al Gore, although he was equally critical of Bush in the same speech. Republicans hope the commercials will help Bush by persuading would-be Gore voters to back Nader instead.
Democrats suggested that the ads, produced by the Republican Leadership Council, will backfire if voters turned off by deceptive politics learn who is behind them. And the GOP ads could reinforce the argument that a vote for Nader amounts to a vote for Bush.
Polls show Nader, a longtime consumer activist who concedes he can't win, has support of 5 percent or more in a half dozen states including California, crucial to Gore with its top prize of 54 electoral votes. The conventional wisdom is that because Nader is more liberal than either Bush or Gore, his supporters would otherwise vote Democratic.
The new Republican ads are to begin airing Monday in Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon, states that are part of Gore's base and where Nader is polling well. The Republican Leadership Council plans to spend at least $100,000 and hopes to raise more over the weekend to increase the ad buy.
An abortion rights group, meanwhile, was increasing its ad buy to $1.5 million, with commercials in key states urging Nader supporters to reconsider, arguing that a vote for Nader helps Bush.
The GOP ad takes sound bites from a Nader speech to the National Press Club Wednesday.
"Al Gore is suffering from election year delusion if he thinks his record on the environment is anything to be proud of," Nader says. An announcer interjects: "What's Al Gore's real record?" Nader says: "Eight years of principles betrayed and promises broken."
Nader has been equally critical of Bush, calling him "a big corporation running for president disguised as a person."
Advertising experts say they can't recall another time when a major party organization has run ads helpful to a minor party candidate.
The effort might backfire, said Darrell West, who studies political ads at Brown University and predicted many voters will see it as cynical and opportunistic.
"Even politicians don't want to come across as being too opportunistic," he said.
Still, West noted, many voters won't realize Republicans are paying for the ads, even though they identify the RLC as sponsor.
Bush advisers say they're concerned that the ads will remind voters that supporting Nader helps Bush, and they fear a backlash if voters assume that Bush is behind the tactic.
The Republican Leadership Council, a moderate GOP group, has been helpful to Bush before, airing ads during the primaries critical of challenger Steve Forbes. Many on the RLC board were early Bush supporters. But Mark Miller, the group's executive director, said the Bush campaign had nothing to do with the new ad.
The Gore campaign labeled the ads deceptive. Vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman said he was confident the public won't be fooled.
"For Republicans to be putting Ralph Nader on television in a paid ad, certainly might lead your average observer to be cynical," he said.
The Gore campaign has been taking Nader more seriously in recent days. Gore addressed Nader's candidacy directly on Thursday, and Lieberman courted Nader supporters in Oregon Friday.
"I ask you to think how you would feel when you wake up Nov. 8 and Bush has carried Oregon," Lieberman told a voter he met in Portland. The voter, Mike Manning, said later that he was unconvinced.
"I understand the ramifications if Bush gets in," Manning said. "It's a matter of conscience."
Nader, running a low-budget campaign, is not currently airing any television commercials of his own and it's possible that the RLC will end up spending more on pro-Nader media than Nader himself.
At a news conference in Des Moines, Iowa, he said only that outside groups have the right to run the ads.
"I'm sure the two parties in their desperation are now trying to use different people against their opponents. That usually happens. you can't stop it. This is America," he said.
Nader has had to repeatedly defend himself against people arguing that his candidacy will help Bush.
"Whether Gore or Bush gets into the White House doesn't mean that much, because the permanent corporate government in Washington is really determining policy," Nader said Friday on ABC.
He hopes to get 5 percent of the popular vote so the Green Party can qualify for federal money in 2004.
The RLC ads will run initially in four markets: Eugene and Portland, Ore.; Madison, Wis., and Seattle.
Nader appears to be hurting Gore most clearly in Oregon, where Bush has a small lead while Nader attracts as much as 10 percent support. Nader is attracting about 5 percent in Washington and Wisconsin polls, although Gore still leads Bush.
He also poses a threat in Minnesota, Maine and Michigan. In this extraordinarily tight national race, one or two states could make the difference in who is elected.
The RLC's Miller said the ads are partly a response to commercials being run by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, which argue that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.
"Ralph Nader doesn't believe that," Miller said.
NARAL said Friday it was tripling its spending on anti-Nader ads to $1.5 million, airing them in Seattle; Portland, Maine; Burlington, Vt.; Eugene, Ore. and Albuquerque, N.M., in addition to Minneapolis, Madison, Wis., and Portland, Ore., where they are already running.
Meanwhile, some Nader supporters are getting anxious about the possibility of costing Gore the election. A Web site is urging those who live in swing states to become "Nader traders" by agreeing to vote for Gore if a Gore-supporting friend who lives in another state agrees to vote for Nader.
And groups that support abortion rights, gay rights and the environment are setting out on a five-state tour next week arguing that a vote for Nader helps Bush.