Chris Ryan
On Monday evening at the Roseland Theater, people smoked in the downstairs bar as they waited. In the balcony bar, people drank as they waited. In the front atrium, people bought ice cream cones, which they ate, as they milled around waiting. On the venue's main floor, as one young couple kissed passionately, hundreds of others sat cross-legged listening to a series of musical acts (including a local chanteuse, who belted out a sultry number describing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld blowing his load all over Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge). They too were patiently waiting--waiting for the evening's main proceedings to begin.

In the end, their patience was in vain. In the city considered to be the ground zero of his support base, consumer advocate and third-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader turned out to be incapable of drawing the 1,000 registered voters needed to place his name on the Oregon ballot. Nader had hoped to take advantage of an obscure tenet of Oregon election law, last utilized in 1980, whereby candidates could gain access to the state's presidential ballot by holding an assembly of at least 1,000 supporters. By 8 p.m., with only 741 people on hand, organizers threw in the towel, saying they would revert to the more traditional method of collecting 15,306 valid signatures by August 24.

It was in all likelihood the most unusual "nominating convention" in modern political history. It was also an embarrassing--and perhaps meaningful--setback to Nader's seemingly quixotic quest for continued political relevance. This is especially true in an election year shaping up as an apocalyptic, scorched earth showdown between two major parties determined to accentuate their differences by playing to the sharply divergent ideological predilections of their respective bases.

Nader put a brave face on the failure after walking onstage in a shower of red, white, and blue confetti. "We always start in Oregon," he told his applauding supporters before rebranding the meeting as "a good beginning" in his effort to make the ballot. He then launched into a lengthy stump speech, in which he blasted the Bush administration for lying its way into an imperialist war of choice in Iraq and for its subservience to corporate interests. He then went on to blast Bush himself as a liar and a dim-witted tool of corporate interests--at one point describing the president as "a giant corporation disguised as a human being"--before blasting the Democratic Party for its failure to champion progressive causes (and, yes, for its subservience to corporate interests).

In an interview earlier on Monday before his mid-day appearance at Town Hall in Seattle, where he drew a smallish crowd of perhaps 400 supporters, Nader said he has no doubt he will ultimately make the ballot in all, or almost all, of the 50 states. He added that while differences existed between the Republicans and Democrats, the parties remained too similar in core respects, and that his candidacy was in part an effort to push the Democrats in a more progressive direction. He also flatly rejected the notion he had played the spoiler in 2000, siphoning enough support from Al Gore in Florida and New Hampshire to throw the election to Bush, saying it was the Democrats own failure to articulate a compelling message that brought on their defeat.

However, Nader's low turnout later that day in Portland appears to indicate that at least some of the progressive and liberal voters drawn to Nader in 2000 now see him as a potential spoiler, refusing to back him again for fear of aiding in a Bush reelection. With anti-Bush sentiment running at a fever pitch, many prominent progressives, including Noam Chomsky, Jim Hightower, Bernie Sanders, and Jimmy Carter have expressed objections to the Nader candidacy. Howard Dean, who pushed an "anti-Washington insider, anti-special interests" message similar to Nader's in his abortive bid for the Democratic nomination, now says that voting for Nader is tantamount to voting for Bush.

Outside the Roseland, a small but highly visible group of protesters waved signs urging Nader supporters to switch their allegiance to presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry. Among them was Carmen Doerge, 51, who said she blamed Nader for the fact her son was now risking his life in Iraq.

"He would not be there if Nader had not run in 2000," she said.

In Washington state, Democratic Party officials, while expressing anger at Nader, say they do not expect him to impact the outcome of the November election. State party chair Paul Berendt predicts that because "people are so anxious to defeat Bush, they aren't going to take a chance with Nader in 2004."

Still, it is far too soon to dismiss Nader as irrelevant. His supporters, while perhaps diminished in number, remain deeply committed. Despite Monday's setback, it is almost certain that Nader will eventually make it onto the ballot in Oregon (as well as in Washington state, where ballot requirements are even lower).

And while Washington is considered a second-tier swing state, which leans Democratic but could conceivably be won by Bush, states like Oregon are much closer to being true toss-ups. A Democratic party loss of even a few thousand votes could make the difference.

"Nader has a base in the Northwest. We know that he has the potential to be a spoiler," Oregon Democratic Party chair Jim Edmundson believes. Speaking several days before the nominating convention, Neel Pinder, executive director of the Oregon Dems, said that, "the message for Monday is that Ralph Nader is unsafe--on any ballot."