Ralph Nader was in Bangor last May for the Maine Green Independent Party convention. I went to his public address after the convention. The place was packed with more than 400 people. I recognized many Democratic activists and candidates.

I called my mother in Ohio the next day for our weekend chat.

"I went to hear Ralph Nader give a speech last night in Bangor," I said. She was impressed that I had seen The Man live and in person.

"How was he?" she asked.

"He gave a good talk," I continued. "Said a lot of things I wished the other presidential candidates were saying."

"Wait a minute," she said. "I don't understand. Ralph Nader is running for president?"

"Yes, on the Green Party ticket. I think they said he was on the ballot in 45 states. I don't know if Ohio is one of them, but he'll be on the ballot here in Maine."

"Oh, I hope he's on the ballot here," she said. "I'll vote for him. And I'm sure [my aunt, her sister] will too."

In that moment, I knew Al Gore was in real trouble.

You see, my 78-year-old mother is a life-long Democrat in a state critical to any presidential race. A devout Catholic, she nonetheless does not think what a woman does with an unwanted pregnancy is any of the Pope's business. For me, she has proved to be a bellwether of the thinking in middle America.

So her immediate, unhesitating decision to vote for Ralph Nader within seconds of learning he was a presidential candidate spoke volumes to me.

Nobody had heard of Ross Perot until he ran for president. Everyone over the age of 40 has heard of Ralph Nader. Most of them view him as a crusader for the common person. And, thanks to the Green Party, a lot of young, idealistic under-40 activists are learning about him too.

But will people who are unenthusiastic about either W or Gore turn to Ralph Nader? Is it worth risking another Bush as president to send the Democratic hierarchy a message?

What message? Take your pick. That the Dems can't push most-favored-nation status for China (after the awful lessons of NAFTA and GATT) and then take the labor vote for granted. That cutting welfare by slicing the safety net is not something to brag about. Add your own message here: _____.

So, when both the Teamsters Union and the United Auto Workers refused to go along with the premature AFL-CIO endorsement of Gore and started making noises about Nader, I sat up and took notice. If major labor unions were to endorse Nader in this race, it would cease to be a two-way race with a potential spoiler and turn into a real three-way contest (Pat Buchanan not withstanding). Such endorsements would bestow Nader with an amazing amount of legitimacy, and would give many people the courage to add their endorsement in the voting booth. (Just recently the UAW endorsed Gore.)

But wait, you say. Don't forget the Supreme Court. Although Bush and Gore seem to be almost identical on everything from foreign policy to variations on the same theme to save Social Security, the big difference between the two men is the abortion issue. The next president will most likely appoint anywhere from one to three new justices. Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance.

Sorry, Charlie, but this staunch pro-choicer is here to say that argument won't fly this year. Why? Because of how the Supreme Court has been acting lately.

For instance, the Justices kept intact the Miranda warning simply because reading a suspect his rights had shown its worth over time, and had become such an established standard of justice.

Then they struck down a Nebraska partial-birth abortion ban because it did not allow the "health" of the pregnant woman to be taken into consideration, as established under Roe v. Wade.

Then the black robes turned around and reaffirmed the First Amendment separation of church and state, banning school-sponsored prayers before football games.

It was enough to send former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer through the roof. How could those GOP-appointed jurists dare to violate the GOP platform, and instead look to the heart of the Constitution to come up with their rulings? Don't they remember who put them where they are? Hadn't they passed all those litmus tests? You would have thought the judges would have been a little more grateful.

Don't get me wrong. I think Bush would make an absolutely horrible president. But I do believe the Democrats will regain control of Congress, because people are so disgusted with the Congressional Republican shenanigans. So if Bush is elected, his Supreme Court nominations will have to be moderate enough to win Democratic confirmation. And, after four years, we will throw him out of office like we did his dad.

But lately the compassionate conservative candidate is having some problems -- with his environmental record, health insurance for poor Texas kids, and all these death row inmates who say they are innocent, or reformed, or who are mentally retarded, but whom he has allowed to die anyway. People are starting to wonder just how Bush's little brain works. When they find out, they will turn away in droves.

Which will then make this a race between Gore and Nader.

Don't give me any garbage about Nader stealing votes. Gore does not automatically deserve every anti-Bush vote. I don't know about you, no candidate can steal my vote. A candidate has to earn my vote. And I pay attention.

It sounds like Ralph Nader earned my mother's vote long before even Nader knew he would be running for president this year. For her, Nader is the common man's embodiment of the continuing fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way.

Good luck fighting that one, Al.

Jean Hay of Dixmont, Maine is an organic farmer and a Democratic candidate for state senate.

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