By identifying himself as an antiwar candidate seeking the rapid withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, and by using his still considerable media skills to spread the word about his stance, Ralph Nader has given his presidential candidacy a boost that ought to be noted by Democratic strategists. Among recent polls that have detected movement in his direction is one taken in early May by the Associated Press and appearing under the headline, “Bush down, Kerry no gain.” It showed Nader winning the support of 7 percent of those surveyed–more than double the 2.7 percent he won in 2000 as the Green Party candidate and his best showing so far this year. “This is Nader’s moment,” says University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs, who tracks third-party politics. “Suddenly, his sails are filling out.”

In truth, Nader is still having trouble floating his boat, but he’s giving evidence that there may be political potency in an antiwar stance that articulates the growing frustration with George W. Bush and his war. It remains to be seen whether Nader’s stronger than expected position, particularly among young voters, will aid the efforts of peace activists pressing Kerry to develop a message that appeals to people who want out of Iraq. The presumptive Democratic nominee is still trying to lie low on the issue, hoping to gain the support of Americans, antiwar or not, who reach the conclusion that Bush has so mismanaged the occupation that he has to go. But Nader characterizes Kerry’s current line on the war–“we do not have the choice to pick up and leave”–as “the exact position needed not to get any [new] votes on the issue.”

Nader seemed to be going nowhere fast in the first stages of his independent campaign, when he reprised his 2000 rhetoric. But a couple of weeks into April, the month that would see more American deaths in Iraq than any since the war began, he condemned the “stay the course” rhetoric of the Bush and Kerry camps and declared, “The way to save US and Iraqi lives and reverse the escalating spiral of violence is for the United States to go back home.” Nader praised Kerry’s emphasis on multilateralism while dismissing Bush as a “messianic militarist.” Still, his most devastating comment was a shot at Kerry: “I wish he would just repeat what he said when he was 27 years old before the Senate, which is: How do you tell a soldier to die for a mistake?”

Nader’s antiwar enthusiasm is viewed cynically by some, who note that he was a no-show at major antiwar rallies last year. And it has not inspired much excitement among the organized antiwar community. Eli Pariser, who has been at the center of’s antiwar work, says he sees “unanimity behind Kerry” among the online activist community’s members. Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, says while he hears “a lot of murmuring” on Kerry’s war stance, “Bush unifies progressives on Kerry the way Clinton unified conservatives.”

Yet Nader’s numbers have improved in several polls taken since he began highlighting his antiwar views: He’s up from 3 percent to 6 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News survey, and as high as 8 percent in polls out of battleground states New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Perhaps more significant, Nader garnered 12 percent among likely voters under 30 surveyed by Newsweek. And, yes, Nader is drawing disproportionately from voters who rank Kerry, not Bush, as their second choice.

Kerry’s “got a Nader problem,” says David Cortright, a fellow at Notre Dame’s Institute for International Peace Studies. And the problem could get worse as mainstream antiwar groups that are part of the Win Without War coalition move to embrace a call for withdrawal from Iraq. Although many prominent activists from groups associated with the coalition say they plan to vote for Kerry, any talk about a timeline for extracting US troops highlights the fact that neither Bush nor Kerry has one.

All of this might have been academic were it left to Nader and his organizationally challenged campaign. In Oregon, where Nader won almost 80,000 votes in 2000, an initial attempt to secure quick ballot access failed, so his campaign now must launch an arduous signature-collection drive. In Texas, where Nader won almost 140,000 votes in 2000, his campaign didn’t gather enough signatures to secure an independent ballot line. In fairness to Nader, barriers to ballot access in many states are unreasonable. But, so far this year, he has had trouble getting on ballots in states where he ran best in 2000.

Still, Nader may yet find his way onto the state ballot lines of at least two parties. What is left of the Reform Party, which served as a vehicle for Ross Perot’s campaigns, endorsed Nader in early May, giving him access to ballot lines in seven states, including the battle zones of Florida and Michigan. Nader sought the Reform endorsement despite the fact that he has some differences with the party, which backed Pat Buchanan in 2000 and still includes some activists who are more Buchananite than Naderite on issues such as immigration. And Nader is likely to reach for more lines from the Green Party, which has ballot status in almost two dozen states, including California and swing states like Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Mexico. Nader told the Greens last year that he wouldn’t seek their nomination, but he remains in the running for the party’s endorsement when it holds its convention in June. Several stand-in candidates, including former California gubernatorial contender Peter Camejo, have collected delegates with the goal of endorsing–or perhaps even nominating–Nader.

There will be opposition to such a move: Lawyer David Cobb, who helped get Nader on the Texas ballot in 2000, is running an energetic campaign for the nomination. Cobb argues that in order to build the Green alternative for the long term, the party should nominate an actual Green, not an independent who has frequently been at odds with party activists. In addition, some Greens argue against backing any candidate this year on the theory that they don’t want to be seen as spoilers in a Kerry-Bush race. But if Nader makes a serious play for Green support, says party co-chair Ben Manski, he might get it. If he is merely endorsed, Nader could still fail to get on all the party’s ballot lines, because some states require that a candidate be officially nominated rather than endorsed, and because some state parties might balk at giving their lines to someone who has an arm’s length relationship with the party. But the more Nader reaches out to his old allies, Manski says, the better his prospects will be for getting Green support and most of the ballot lines. “He is either going to have to negotiate with us or with Kerry,” is his view. In the case of the Greens, that would involve mending fences and committing the party to a full-scale campaign. In Kerry’s case, it’s a more complex calculation.

Nader and Kerry have had conversations over the past year, and they talked again recently about what both describe as a mutual desire for regime change at home. Some Kerry backers are pushing him, in the words of Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, to “resolve whatever issues that Nader believes he’s got on his plate so that he could join the Kerry team.” But it is hard to imagine a negotiation that would lead to the result seen recently in South Dakota, where a Native American challenger dropped an independent bid and endorsed Senate minority leader Tom Daschle after Daschle agreed to focus more attention on issues of concern to the state’s Indian voters.

Nader no longer suggests that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats, but he remains frustrated with the Democrats’ caution on issues ranging from corporate corruption to the war. At best, there might be a deal to have Nader avoid campaigning in battleground states, but that would sour relations with the Reform and Green parties. More likely, Nader’s biggest impact will be to strengthen the hand of Kerry backers–and antiwar activists–who want the Democrat to develop some kind of Iraq exit strategy. Kerry’s been promising to “make it unnecessary for [voters] to support Ralph Nader.” He could start by stealing a little of Nader’s antiwar thunder.