HANOVER, N.H. -- A generation of Ralph Nader supporters will come of age Nov. 2 at Dartmouth College, and they're planning to vote for John F. Kerry.
In their cloth sandals, worn jeans, and "Support Fair Trade" sweatshirts, 15 members of the Dartmouth Greens gathered here Monday night for their weekly discussion of social justice and politics. The conversation veered from the economic abuse of sweatshop laborers to the physical abuse of Iraqi prisoners and whether a protest action of papering the campus with photos of abused Iraqis -- with the caption, "Is this the occupation you wanted?" -- would exploit the victims further.
While none of the 15 particularly like Kerry -- "wavering," "craggy," "passable," and "tree-stumpy" were among their descriptions of him -- this intensely antiwar group has almost unanimously decided to forsake Nader, a man they see as an idol, to help Kerry win New Hampshire, a key battleground state.
Al Gore lost here in 2000 by 7,200 votes, and many Democrats blamed Nader, who drew 22,000 votes. It is this psychology of defeat, a fear of throwing the election to Bush, that will steer Naderites, as well as many undecided voters, to Kerry's side, campaign officials say.
"About 30 incoming freshmen came up to us at a campus fair recently and said, 'Are you part of the Green Party, because I don't want to support Nader after he ruined the last election,' " said Natalie Allan, a Dartmouth sophomore studying history. "We had to say we weren't with Nader. It's like we have to do a disclaimer now."
As the Kerry campaign looks at the Electoral College map of 538 votes -- the magic number for victory is 270 -- they aim to hold onto the 20 states that Al Gore won in 2000, which this year would net 260 electoral votes. The Kerry strategy is to cross the 270-vote threshold with aggressive campaigns in 15 to 20 swing states.
Some Kerry lieutenants are lobbying for an all-out push in Ohio (with 20 electoral votes) or Missouri (11, perhaps with local congressman Richard A. Gephardt as a running mate), while others are more inclined toward racking up wins in smaller states, including Arizona (10), West Virginia (5), and New Hampshire (4).
Bill Shaheen, who ran Gore's operation in New Hampshire in 2000 and is now in charge of Kerry's campaign here, said the campaign is determined to avoid what he sees as Gore's error, writing off states such as New Hampshire, Ohio, and West Virginia too early, when Bush had not solidified support there.
Shaheen, husband of former governor Jeanne Shaheen, Kerry's campaign chairwoman, recalled: "Gore never thought New Hampshire was in play, even though Jeanne was running for a third term, and then three weeks before the general election [the Gore campaign] told me New Hampshire was in play and to get busy. But we had no staff, no money, no budget.
"Now we're going after every state, but you want to be able to pace yourself," he said. "Some things you have no control over, like the prisoner abuse in Iraq. What I see is a slow boil of anger against Bush that will peak in the fall, at the right time."
The high command of the Kerry forces -- for example, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and strategist Tad Devine -- are also committed to competing in as many states as possible, not only because they believe that voters are souring on the economy and the Iraq war, but also to force the Bush campaign to spend money matching Kerry's advertising.
When Kerry began airing a set of ads last week in Louisiana -- which Bush won by eight percentage points in 2000 -- the Republicans were on the air there within 24 hours, Devine pointed out.
"It's very good for us to get more states in play," he said. "That's why we said we're going up on the air in Louisiana and Colorado. Two weeks ago we told people we would expand the battleground. Some people doubted it; the Republicans called us a bunch of names. And then we did exactly that."
Another Kerry strategist, who asked not to be named, said "hard-core antiwar voters" were a greater threat to Democrats than Nader. This strategist expressed concern that such voters might simply stay home in November if they feel that Bush, Kerry, and Nader all lack a plan for Iraq.
But a third Kerry adviser said that antiwar voters will probably solidify in Kerry's camp because of the likelihood that ongoing woes in Iraq will ultimately harm Bush.
"I think our message is very clear: We wouldn't be in the mess we are in today in Iraq if Kerry were president," the campaign official said.
But some political analysts and pollsters say that states like New Hampshire typify the challenges that Kerry faces as he seeks to hold onto states Gore won in 2000 and win more.
Because of changes in state-by-state electoral votes after the 2000 Census, in which the US population count shifted toward Southern and Southwestern states, Kerry faces a harder time than Gore in reaching 270.
Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire pollster, pointed out that Kerry holds a lead of four percentage points in a theoretical matchup with Bush in the Granite State, down from a 14-point lead in a UNH poll in February.
Nader, who took 4 percent of the vote in 2000, needs just 3,000 signatures to qualify for the New Hampshire ballot; his name was not included in the most recent UNH poll, but Smith expects that Nader will be on the ballot.
And there are other variables: Republicans are expected to dominate the New Hampshire ballot this November, with Governor Craig Benson, Senator Judd Gregg, and the state's two representatives up for reelection.
"Kerry won't have the kind of inverse coattails that Bush will have from Republicans in the state," Smith said. "Gregg's seat is so safe, for instance, he can just campaign for Bush this fall."
Nader, who plans to visit New Hampshire later this month as part of a Northeastern tour, is preparing to qualify for the presidential ballots in at least 45 states, spokesman Kevin Zeese said. On Wednesday, Nader was endorsed by the national Reform Party, putting him on the ballot in at least eight states, including the battlegrounds of Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Nader's campaign said he would decide on a case-by-case basis whether to accept the Reform nomination.
As for Kerry, few Democratic activists are presuming that he will win here, only that he has a good shot. At Dartmouth, some Greens say they hope their lukewarm support for Kerry as the candidate with the best chance of defeating Bush will evolve into positive reasons for backing the Massachusetts senator.
"There's nothing exciting about him," said Amber Kelsie, a government major from Texas. "He's almost as tree-stumpy as Gore is. He feels like he wavers on issues or he won't take an actual stance.
"But I hear that he has a good record on the environment," she said. "That's one thing. I'd really like to feel better about this choice, since I am planning to vote for him."
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.