The striking distinction between the Green Party’s national gathering in late June and the Democratic and Republican national conventions, which will come later this summer, was the element of suspense. Close to 800 Green delegates arrived in Milwaukee united on basic issues–opposition to the war in Iraq and corporate hegemony, enthusiasm for organic standards, mass transit and instant-runoff voting–but uncertain about who would carry the party’s national banner into the fall election season. In a sense, this was the convention where Greens had to decide what they wanted to be when they grew up. To the surprise even of some party leaders, they opted for a nuanced approach that, in the words of veteran party activist Medea Benjamin, promises to “help defeat Bush and grow the Greens.”

Faced with a choice between nominating one of their own, anticorporate activist David Cobb, and endorsing Ralph Nader, the party’s 1996 and 2000 candidate who this year is running as an independent, Greens had to sort through a dizzying array of electoral and emotional options. By endorsing Nader, they would maintain a difficult relationship between the party and a non-Green but high-profile contender who Democrats say spoiled their chances in the 2000 presidential race, and who continues to send mixed signals about how he will conduct himself. With Cobb, they were offered a savvy party veteran who promised to use his campaign to build Green strength at the grassroots while maintaining a “safe states” strategy that, though critical of both George W. Bush and John Kerry, would avoid targeting states where a strong Green showing might tip the balance to Bush. After disregarding the Greens during much of this year’s campaign, Nader and his followers within the party made a late bid for an endorsement that would have provided access to many of the party’s twenty-three ballot lines and to its substantial volunteer base. Nader selected a prominent Green, former California gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo, as his vice presidential running mate and then phoned in an “appearance” to a “Run Ralph Run” rally on the eve of the vote. But in the second round of balloting, delegates–some supporters of the “safe states” strategy, but other party purists who wanted to nominate one of their own–gave Cobb the nomination.

Cobb, who has developed over months of campaigning into an agile contender, was gracious in victory, announcing, “Ralph, if you are watching, thank you for what you have done, and thank you for what you will continue to do.” Nader responded by dismissing the Greens as “strange” and calling the convention a “cabal.” But the rejection will hurt. After a week that included a disastrous meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus–during which California Representative Barbara Lee told him, “A vote for Ralph Nader is really a vote for George Bush”–the consumer advocate needed the Greens more than ever. Many Green activists say Nader could have secured their support with relative ease if he had treated the party with respect–by seeking its nomination rather than an endorsement, by showing up in Milwaukee and by offering a clearer sense of how he hopes to run his campaign. But in the words of one of the party’s elder statesmen, Maine’s John Rensenbrink, Nader “blew it.”

Though Nader continues to poll at 5 or 6 percent in some national and battleground state surveys–often tipping the balance in Bush’s favor–he is having trouble securing ballot lines; the latest failure was Indiana, and even with the help of conservative groups, he is still struggling to get on in Oregon. Ultimately, Nader’s name will make it on a number of state ballots–including those of battleground states like Florida, where he’s been offered the Reform Party line. But without the Greens, it is hard to see how he will get on anywhere near the forty-four lines he was on in 2000, and that will cost him not just votes but credibility as a national contender. For instance, in California, where Nader will not have the Green ballot line, an independent candidate must gather a daunting 150,000 signatures. It’s likely that Nader will come to regret losing the backing of the Greens. On the other hand, many Greens appear to be satisfied with their new course, and their new candidate. “We’ve broken our addiction to Nader,” Benjamin, a founder of the antiwar group Code Pink, says of the Greens. “We’ve recognized that we can build the party at the grassroots while remaining on the same page with our progressive allies when it comes to beating Bush.”