WASHINGTON – He's dropped in polls that gave him one lonely digit to begin with and seen friends peel away — even fall melodramatically to their knees begging him to quit.
Even a little bit of Ralph Nader (search) is too much for Democrats. They are sparing no effort to see him finish this race for the White House as nothing more than a pesky asterisk.
The consumer advocate has qualified for the presidential ballot in fewer than a dozen states and is soldiering on through a battery of deadlines this month in many others, with Democrats or surrogates launching hair-trigger challenges wherever they find an opening.
Polls suggest the battle for the White House has already come down to a struggle over a small proportion of undecided voters, with the rest already sold on either Republican President Bush or Democrat John Kerry (search). In that circumstance, analysts say, these are not promising times for an independent.
"This is an election that is very important in people's minds — much more so than 2000," said Michael Dimock, research director at the Pew Research Center (search). "People really think it matters who wins this year, and ... they have very strong feelings about President Bush one way or the other. That dynamic right there is limiting Nader."
Nader has about 2 percent in Pew polls compared with 6 percent earlier, and has performed similarly in other surveys, leaving little chance he can reach the 15 percent threshold to qualify for the fall presidential debates.
"The negative impressions of him are much higher than four years ago," said Karlyn Bowman, who specializes in public opinion at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (search). She added bluntly, "He has appeared to have worn out his welcome."
Democrats, who think he cost them the last election, still worry he's a menace on the margins.
"The key is keeping his name off the ballot," said Democratic strategist Dane Strother. "If he makes the ballot in one or two or three swing states and siphons 3 or 4 points off Kerry, it's harmful.
"His entire race is an ego trip but he is a reality and he is going to affect the race on the margins."
Democrats shut Nader off the Arizona ballot by uncovering irregularities in his petition signatures and are challenging tens of thousands of signatures elsewhere, including the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Beyond that, Nader blames intimidation of signature collectors and other Democratic "dirty tricks" for leaving him short of the required number of names in other states, including California. Even so, he's a likely player in swing-state Florida and may win ballot access in a few dozen states without onerous rules.
Nationally, the liberal group United Progressives for Victory, which includes former Nader associates, is dedicated to his campaign's collapse. Damning him with praise, the group says "the best way to support Nader's agenda this year is to oppose his candidacy."
The clatter for him to quit carried into talk-show TV when Nader went on Bill Maher's HBO program only to have the host and filmmaker Michael Moore — a Nader supporter in 2000 — beg on their knees.
All this piling on doesn't dissuade the ornery activist. "He digs in with his heels," said spokesman Kevin Zeese.
A Reform Party endorsement probably ensures Nader's place on the ballot in Florida, the state that tilted the last election to Bush and one of six states where he is entitled to run as that party's nominee. He has also won a place in the ballot in New Jersey and Nevada.
Zeese contends Nader can still show up on 40-something state ballots. He was on 43 last time, when he won 2.7 percent of the vote.
Despite Nader's protestations that he wants to help drive Bush from office, Republicans are happy to have him around and have been lending an unsolicited hand. They believe, just as Democrats do, that Nader's support comes mainly from people who would otherwise vote for Kerry.
In Michigan, Republicans turned in most of the 50,000 signatures gathered to support Nader's candidacy. He is also trying to get on the ballot there as the Reform candidate. Democrats are fighting to keep him off there, too, and drew GOP accusations that they outsourced some of their signature-verification work to India.
Absent Nader in 2000, Democrats believe they would have won the presidency by winning Florida, New Hampshire or both. "We didn't pursue it as aggressively as we should have," Strother said, meaning the Nader threat. They're trying to make him as absent as possible now.