WASHINGTON – Rather than shunning the third party candidates floating around in this year's elections, Republicans and Democrats are making the most of them, helping these would-be politicos act as "spoilers" to siphon votes from their major party opponents.
For instance, at least two organized efforts — in one case, a state Republican Party — are taking place to help independent candidate and consumer activist Ralph Nader (search), hoping he will take away votes from Democratic Sen. John Kerry in key battleground states.
"We took the wind out of their sails and we're not ashamed of it — we think it's healthy for the process," said Greg McNeilly, executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, which proudly helped gather 43,000 signatures on state petitions to get Nader on the ballot there. The state requires 30,000 signatures to qualify.
State officials are currently validating the signatures, which are being contested by state Democrats.
Meanwhile, in Oregon, controversy swirls over the ballot access assistance given Nader by the state chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a fiscally conservative non-profit, whose national chairman is former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey. A smaller group, the Oregon Family Council, has also steered members toward signing petitions for Nader.
"Obviously, we oppose 99 percent of what Ralph Nader stands for," said Chris Kinnan, spokesman for the national Citizens for a Sound Economy (search), which also helped the ballot effort in Michigan and Wisconsin. "But we think he is an independent who does have significant support and there is definitely a lot of folks working to keep him off the ballot and that's unfortunate."
Kinnan insists that the group, as a nonpartisan think tank, is not working directly with President Bush's campaign or Nader's team.
In fact, when contacted last week, Greg Kafoury, a Portland attorney who is running Nader's campaign in Oregon, said the issue was part of a broader smear campaign by Oregon Democrats, who have successfully kept the focus off of the issues.
"We've never even had any contact with these people, never spoken to them or had anything to do with them," he told FOXNews.com.
"What's going on is that the Democrats have launched this massive smear campaign, attacking Nader, claiming he has all this Republican support," Kafoury said. "All we want to do is talk about the issues."
Asked why the group, which was founded by prominent Republicans, would help Nader despite their myriad differences on policy, Kinnan said, "We think he helps shape the debate for us. He forces Kerry to share where he stands on the issues."
Democrats don't hide their anger over what they call a cynical attempt by Republican interests to get Nader involved in the Michigan race.
"GOP staffers themselves were circulating the (Nader) petitions," said Jason Moon, spokesman for the Michigan Democratic Party, which has formerly charged that the state GOP assistance to Nader amounts to illegal in-kind contributions.
"It shows that a vote for Nader is clearly a vote to elect George Bush, and it shows the Republicans in the state don't have much confidence in their candidate," said Moon. "We have no problem with Nader taking the vote as long as he legally does so."
Recent statewide polls of likely voters in Michigan and Oregon show Kerry leading Bush by slim margins, and with Nader picking up 3 percent and 4 percent respectively. A Republican poll of likely Wisconsin voters released last week found Kerry and Bush deadlocked at 46 percent each, with Nader getting 2 percentage points.
Concerned by Nader's pull, a group called The Nader Factor (search), which is led by former staffers on Gov. Howard Dean and Gen. Wesley Clark's failed presidential campaigns, recently launched advertisements in New Mexico and Wisconsin — two key battleground states where Democrats allege Bush supporters have been helping Nader's efforts — questioning their collusion.
"Why is Nader taking their help?" the ad asks. "Who knows? Maybe Nader and the right wing know something we don't."
Without the lightning rod of Nader, the Green Party (search), which backed Nader in 2000, says it has not heard of any meddling by major party supporters in their campaign. Green Party Presidential candidate David Cobb, along with running mate Pat LeMarche, are on the ballot in 30 states and seeking access in others.
A spokeswoman with the national office said the Greens don't consider themselves spoilers in any state, and are thus "under the radar" and concentrating on building party identification at the state and local levels.
But Nader isn't the only lightning rod in the races, and the spoiler effect isn't limited to the presidential race. Conservative Constitution Party (search) candidate Jim Clymer, who is running against moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (search) in Pennsylvania, said he got help from Democratic volunteers bearing 1,600 signatures for his ballot campaign. They seemingly wanted to help ease the odds for Democratic candidate Rep. Joe Hoeffel (search).
Clymer said the assistance wasn't necessary.
"First, we would have made it on the ballot anyway," he said, noting that he has filed approximately 35,600 signatures, satisfying the requirement of 25,698. "Secondly, there were a lot of Republicans who collected signatures for me as well, and independents. They had different reasons, different motivations, obviously."
He called the Democratic motivations part "of the game they play," just like the Republicans helping out Nader. "I don't think it's ethical," he added. "I believe in putting my principles before any party organization."
Mark White, spokesman for the Christian-grounded Oregon Family Council (search), which claims only a few dozen of its members actually showed up at one of Nader's conventions to lend signatures to the campaign, said he doesn't see it that way.
"I don't think there was anything wrong with it," he said, acknowledging their ultimate goal is to re-elect Bush. "I have a responsibility to the people who support us and to forward our agenda."
The deadline to get the 15,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot in Oregon is Tuesday. Eighteen other states besides Michigan are currently reviewing petition signatures. Nader has been placed on the ballot in four states through his own machinations and is on the ballot in seven states through Reform and Independent Party endorsements.
In hindsight, White said helping Nader wasn't worth the mostly negative publicity. "If I had to do it all over again I probably wouldn't because it makes it look like there is more of a conspiracy than there is," he said. "Nader can get on the ballot himself."