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Shades of American politics

They're new, they're political and they're green. Ten students sat in a humid Cabell Hall classroom Tuesday, as the two-week old Greens at U.Va. group tried to establish leadership, policies, publicity and fundraising for the University's newest political organization.

Like most new clubs at the University, they started out small. But unlike most new organizations, the two-week old Green Party student organization was already preparing for a major event: an appearance by the guru of Greens himself, Ralph Nader.

Nader, known to many for starting the modern consumer movement, is the 2000 presidential candidate for the Green Party.

Greens at U.Va., also known as GrUVa, tabled on the Lawn for three days last week, promoting their new organization and the appearance of Ralph Nader at Old Cabell Hall last night. They did it in traditional club tabling style, complete with sign-up lists, bumper stickers and other sources of information.

All this to promote a third-party candidate who is viewed as an afterthought by many in the heated race between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush. But Nader's supporters tout him as an alternative to America's deeply-rooted two-party system.

Fourth-year Engineering student Phil Varner said he is attracted to Nader as a presidential candidate.

Varner said he entered college as a conservative Republican until realizing that "the Republican party doesn't really stand for the average person, he said. The Democrats weren't really doing anything either."

So enter the Greens, a third party led by a man who Varner said, "completely changed the face of American public safety" when Nader sued General Motors in the 1970s over the dangers of the alleged low-quality Corvair automobile.

Varner is not the only one jumping the Republican and Democratic ships to join the Greens.

Third-year Law student Curtis Cooper worked to bring the Green's candidate to the University after Nader, a self-proclaimed "public citizen," addressed the Law School last spring.

Cooper said Nader received a positive response from a large crowd last spring and "based on those successes, it seemed like a good time to get a Green Party group together."

Nader's national campaign contacted Cooper, expressing interest in having Nader speak at the University, after he signed up on-line to be a campus coordinator for the Greens at the University.

"Nader has gotten a lot of response in campuses across the country," Cooper said, explaining that Nader's major areas of concern, such as the environment and corporate involvement in politics, are especially appealing to students.

"I'm really anti-corporation and I agree strongly with a lot of Nader's doctrine," said third-year college student and GrUva member Liz Render as she stood behind GrUva's Lawn table.

"If you choose Gore or Bush, you're choosing the same candidate" because they are both products of corporate politics, Render said. She was attracted to the fact that Nader does not accept soft money, donations from corporations, and is aiming for more of a grassroots democracy.

Nader's performance in this election will have major consequences for the Green party's funding in the 2004 presidential election.

If he gets 5 percent of the national vote, the government will match all donations to the Green Party.

The percentage he receives in this election will have implications for the other parties as well.

"It's critical for him, it's critical for the Greens, it's critical for Gore and Bush," said Larry Sabato, professor of government and foreign affairs.

Sabato predicted that if Nader gets 2 or 3 percent of the nation's vote, Gore will win the presidency, but if he gets 10 percent of the vote, Bush will win.

Sabato noted that Nader's voting percentage nationally has decreased from 6 or 7 percent earlier in the year, to about 3 percent now.

Aware of Nader's presence in the election, Jon Lange, fourth-year College student and treasurer of the University Democrats, noted how important the third-party candidate's performance was to the Vice President.

Lange said Nader "certainly brings a few issues into the fray that the others don't" but his ideas are basically liberal and he is taking a lot of voters away from Gore.

Third-year college student and College Republican vice chair Monique Miles has a different view on Nader.

"Based on integrity, he has a better record" than Gore, Miles said, referring to the issue of campaign finance. She said that if given a choice solely between Gore and Nader, the College Republicans would rather see Nader as president.

Nader is not just taking votes away from the other two candidates. Sabato said many people who vote for Nader wouldn't have voted otherwise.

As Nader reaches out to youth voters who may be undecided on their political identification, the other two parties are trying to get the youth vote as well.

Sabato said that the two major parties both have extensive programs aimed at young voters.

"Gore is relying on his daughters, Bush is relying on his nephew, George P." to reach young voters, said Sabato. He said the youth voter turnout is extremely low mainly because becoming involved in politics is a gradual process that many young people are not yet interested in.

Stephen Jones, a second-year engineering student and GrUva member, said there has been more excitement generated by the Nader campaign this year than in 1996. This excitement has brought more people into the movement. Jones explained this is the first year Nader has actually made a substantial run for the presidency. Unlike the '96 election, this time he "should easily be on 40 ballots."

Jones, a non-traditional student seeking his second bachelor's degree at the age of 32, said he had been involved at the state level and helped collect signatures to get Nader on the presidential ballot in Virginia.

The presence of Nader's name on the ballot will have an effect in the race one way or another regardless of the outcome, but GrUVa will continue to organize around the Green platform, working to distinguish themselves from the other two parties.