It's not easy to be a fan of presidential candidate Ralph Nader (search) these days. Just ask Dallas Stoner.
The 27-year-old college student is a Nader die-hard — representing that small but persistent blip of supporters who are standing tall against Republicans who dismiss Nader's candidacy and Democrats who fear that Nader supporters will foil John Kerry's (search) run for the White House.
"Would you like to sign a petition to help get Ralph Nader on the Indiana presidential ballot?" Stoner, armed with clipboard and pens, regularly asks his peers at festivals, concerts and on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, a year-round commuter school better known as IUPUI.
The responses? "They either say, 'No' or they say 'Yes' — or they say, 'Hell no, get out of my face,"' says Stoner, an environmental public affairs major at IUPUI who's also Nader's statewide coordinator in Indiana.
Stoner knows that Nader is the longest of long shots, especially in Indiana, a state not known for its support of environmental causes — and where Nader didn't even make it onto the ballot in 2000. Facing a June 30 deadline, he and his staff have collected only about a third of the nearly 30,000 required signatures to win a Nader a place this time.
But the resistance, and even the animosity — particularly from Democrats who think Nader's candidacy four years ago hurt Al Gore (search) — only strengthens Stoner's resolve.
"The reasons I believe in Mr. Nader have been amplified 100 times," says Stoner, who likes the candidate's environmentally friendly stances on issues from transportation to world trade. He also sees little difference between the two main presidential candidates — referring to them as "Bush and Bush lite" — and to Democrats as "Republocrats."
Recent national polls have shown Nader getting support from 4 percent to 7 percent of registered voters nationwide. Traditionally, much of his support has come from younger Americans, so it doesn't surprise political scientist Craig Leonard Brians that some college students have stuck with Nader, who's scheduled to speak at the National Press Club on Thursday.
"The world seems so changeable at that age — and that's part of the appeal of Ralph Nader," says Brians, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies elections and political behavior. "Nader isn't a spring chicken, but he says, 'We're going to try something different."'
During his swing through the campus cafeteria, Stoner collects about a dozen signatures for Nader in about a half hour — and registers several more people to vote. He and his small staff spend several hours a week doing this between classes and homework.
Some of the students who sign the petitions say they like Nader and are thinking of voting for him.
"Our state's going to vote for Bush, regardless. So we may as well have a voice," says 22-year-old Amber Spurlock, who's double-majoring in English and anthropology.
Joseph Arnett, a 28-year-old communications major, agrees.
"I'll sign it, man," he says, eagerly grabbing the pen out of Stoner's hand. "You should always give people the opportunity to prove themselves."
But some students, including Lidelia Vazquez — a Kerry supporter — curtly refuse to sign.
"I think he's running not to be president but because he wants to have a voice," the 19-year-old freshman says. "But it kind of upsets me. He's taking votes away from John Kerry."
Even on campuses known for their liberal bent, Nader has lost favor.
John Coffee, a history professor at Emerson College in Boston, says that while many of his students supported Nader in 2000, "only a couple" are backing him this time around.
"The enthusiasm is not so much for Kerry as it is against Bush, who many fear will revive the draft if he keeps going on crusades to remove tyrants he doesn't like," Coffee says. "I have never seen such animosity toward a candidate as I see against Bush."
Brians, at Virginia Tech, says he's also noted that Nader's candidacy isn't causing "the buzz" on campus that it once did. Students, he says, are more worried about jobs and the economy than Nader's trademark environmental issues.
"Idealism," Brians says, "is in short supply."
Still others, including 20-year-old Jared Duval, place the blame on Nader himself.
"His message is old, too cynical and repetitive, and he comes off as arrogant," says Duval, who'll be a senior at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., this fall. "He is not seen as offering another direction, just complaining about the direction we are going."
Stoner says that he and his fellow Nader supporters sometimes get discouraged at such attitudes.
"I liken it to environmentalism. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It's a struggle," he says. "But that doesn't mean you're not going to go out and fight the next day."
Getting candidates access to the ballot is a key part of that fight.
"Little steps," he says. "Little steps toward democracy."