The best-case scenario for Ralph Nader’s fourth presidential campaign — a 1992 write-in effort in the New Hampshire primary, Green Party runs in 1996 and 2000, and the independent candidacy he announced on Sunday — is to pull a Norman Thomas. In the Great Depression election of 1932, Democrats worried that Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party candidate, would draw off votes in key states and help reelect Republican President Herbert Hoover. When the ballots were counted, however, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt defeated Hoover in all but six states and was swept into the White House. At the same time, Thomas won close to 900,000 votes nationwide, and in many state his backers provided a cushion of votes for Democrats who swept local, state and congressional races. Thomas was invited to the White House, treated with respect on Capitol Hill and credited with providing the inspiration for important elements of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The worst-case scenario for Nader’s 2004 campaign is the James Birney circumstance. Birney, a prominent attorney who served as secretary of the American Anti-Slavery Society, sought the presidency in 1840 and again in 1844 as the candidate of the abolitionist Liberty Party. Birney’s second run for the presidency secured only 62,103 votes, out of 2.7 million cast nationwide. But Birney took away enough votes in key states such as New York from Whig Henry Clay, a more cautious critic of the expansion of slavery, to tip the election to Democrat James K. Polk, who campaigned on a promise to annex Texas as a slave state. Polk quickly did just that, and then ordered the invasion of Mexico. Until his death in 1857, Birney, the passionate abolitionist, was blamed for giving pro-slavery forces an upper hand at a critical stage in American politics.

Somewhere between those best- and worst-case scenarios lies the likely result for Nader this year. It is far less dramatic. Indeed, the most likely scenario for Nader in 2004 is that he will not matter much.

Running as an independent, Nader will not be able to capture the ballots lines nor the considerable enthusiasm of the Green Party’s volunteer infrastructure, which played a critical role in securing him ballot status in 43 states and the District of Columbia in 2000. And running in a year when beating George W. Bush has emerged as the central issue for millions of progressives, Nader will also have to make this race without the assistance of long-time friends and backers such as Ronnie Dugger, Michael Moore and Jim Hightower. As a result, the best bet is that Nader’s name will be on fewer state ballots than in 2000; he might not even secure the roughly two dozen ballot lines he had in 1996. If this turns out to be the case, Nader will have a much harder time arguing for his inclusion in the debates. And, come November, he will be much more likely to end up as an asterisk.

Of course, Nader sees things differently. Running as an independent reformer, he says, he will have greater appeal to the disenchanted of all parties. Currently, he’s suggesting that disappointed supporters of Howard Dean, turned off by the somnambulant, centrist candidacy of John Kerry, might exit the Democratic column and search Nader’s name out on the margins of state ballot that are reserved for independent candidates.

But there’s a lot of wishful thinking in that calculus. Dean was never really the pox-on-all-their-houses reformer that he tried to make himself in a last-ditch attempt to distinguish his waning candidacy from those of John Kerry and John Edwards. He came to prominence in 2003 as the “Beat Bush” candidate who referenced the disputed Bush-v-Gore result of 2000 in his stump speeches, condemned the president for lying about weapons of mass destruction, accused Dick Cheney’s Halliburton of war profiteering and delivered blistering attacks on John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act.

If Kerry is the nominee, the Massachusetts senator and his backers admit that they are going to have to work to attract and inspire true-believing “Deaniacs.” But, for the most part, the risk is that Deaniacs will disengage, not that they will align with Nader.

The 2004 contest is shaping up as a classic test of a contentious incumbent. Voters will likely approach the ballot box in November with far more clarity than was evidenced in 2000, recognizing that this year’s election gives them a chance to embrace or reject another four years of George Bush, Dick Cheney and their administration.

For Nader to intrude into that choice in a meaningful way, it is necessary to imagine that substantial numbers of voters will go to the polls absolutely determined to remove the president from office — grumbling all the way about the occupation of Iraq, war profiteering, assaults on civil liberties and tax breaks for the rich — and then vote for Nader rather than a Democrat who could actually beat Bush. That’s not a very likely prospect; and if it ever became one, Democrats would be particularly well positioned to counter it. Even as Nader objects, Democrats can and wlll argue that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush, and they will have many more buyers for that line than in 2000.

This said, Democrats such as party chair Terry McAuliffe — who says, “We can’t afford to have Ralph Nader in this race” — would be wise to calm down a bit with regards to Nader. It is true that, if a portion of Nader voters in New Hampshire and Florida had voted for Gore, the Democrat would have won those states — no matter what schemes were hatched by Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his minions. But it is also true that, if a portion of Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party voters in Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa and New Mexico had cast their ballots for Bush, the Republican would have beaten Gore in those states. And savvy Democrats, such as former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, have always recognized that Nader voters helped US Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and US Representative Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, win tight races in 2000. Cantwell’s victory put Democrats in position to seize control of the Senate in 2001, after Vermont’s Jim Jeffords left the GOP fold.

So, rather than waste too much time on the 2000 blame game, those who seek to beat Bush in 2004 ought to focus on some bottom-line fundamentals regarding Nader’s latest candidacy:

IT HAS GOTTEN HARDER FOR NADER TO ARGUE THAT THERE ARE NO DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TWO MAJOR PARTIES: On the night before Nader announced his candidacy, Al Gore appeared at an Idaho Democratic Party event where he presented a detailed denunciation of Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s energy, environmental and economic policies. Gore remains an imperfect player. But his words and deeds over the past several years have done a great deal to undermine Nader’s basic premise that it did really matter who won the 2000 election — and, by extension, who will win the 2004 election.

NADER WILL BE MARGINALIZED NOT BY CRITICISM OF HIS STRATEGIES BUT BY THE THEFT OF HIS ISSUES: In the fall of 2000, Gore backers spent millions of dollars and immense amounts of time and energy seeking to demonize Nader. They came off as desperate and anti-democratic, and in some instances actually reinforced support for Nader. Worst of all, their sense of urgency was undermined by their own candidate. Apart from a handful of populist moments, Gore ran a tepid campaign in which he failed to adequately distinguish himself from the then “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush on core issues — remember the second debate, when the Democratic and Republican candidates agreed to agree on question after question. Those agreements reinforced Nader’s message. More importantly, Gore’s failure to pick up Nader’s themes limited the Democrat’s ability to compete in several key states. Had Gore addressed concerns about free trade, the decline in manufacturing, and farm policies that favored corporate agribusiness, he might well have won Ohio, Missouri and West Virginia — state’s that voted for Bill Clinton but went narrowly for Bush. Gore’s biggest mistake in 2000 was his failure to understand Nader’s appeal. Both Kerry, the Democratic frontrunner at this point, and John Edwards, his most prominent challenger for the nomination, are stumbling over one another to present themselves as economic populists. That’s a signal that they will do a better job than Gore did of competing for the support not just of potential Nader backers but of the far broader pool of voters (and potential voters) who need to hear a populist message on issues such as trade.

NADER MAY NOT EVEN BE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT INDEPENDENT OR THIRD-PARTY CONTENDER IN 2004: Those in the Bush White House and its echo chambers on right-wing talk radio and the Fox television network, who have been delighting in the prospect of a Nader run, may not be laughing for long. Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama jurist whose fight to display the Ten Commandments on state property drew national attention last year, is being courted by the right-wing Constitution Party as a potential presidential candidate. (The Constitution Party was on the ballot in 41 states in 2000, and retains a solid network of activist supporters nationwide.) With growing numbers of core conservatives angered by Bush’s policies on immigration, federal spending and individual liberties, a Moore candidacy could develop into a serious problem for the president. More than 20 percent of the voters in January’s New Hampshire Republican primary cast ballots for someone other than Bush; more than 10 percent of Oklahoma Republican primary voters did the same. Come November, Moore could pose a greater threat to Republican prospects than Nader will to the Democrats.

NADER IS EXTREMELY UNLIKELY TO LEAVE THIS RACE ANYTIME SOON: From the moment Nader said he was exploring a 2004 bid, it was obvious he was going to run. In addition to rejecting appeals from former supporters to join a broad “Beat Bush” movement, Nader dismissed offers of platforms and vehicles that would have allowed him to be a major player in the 2004 race without being a candidate — just as he rejected the Green Party line. He is determined to have his say and, as his “Meet the Press” announcement appearance illustrated, he will have plenty of opportunities to do so. He believes he has something to add to the debate, and he knows he has a right to try. Additionally, he has come to enjoy campaigning. Energy devoted to trying to get him out of the competition is wasted.

Franklin Roosevelt and his supporters came to a similar conclusion with regards to Norman Thomas in 1932. So they treated him with respect during the fall campaign, while grabbing the best elements of the Socialist platform away from Thomas. In the end, Roosevelt won, while Thomas could say he contributed significantly to the process. Nader, who has always held Thomas in high regard, will cling to the hope that the Roosevelt-Thomas scenario will repeat itself — unlikely as that may be. He can anticipate no better result for himself this year. And the alternatives are far less appealing — for Nader, and for America.