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The Greens vs. the Dems: Another Nightmare on Election Street?

In 2000, many Democrats blamed Ralph Nader for letting George W. Bush take the White House. This year, Dems fear a replay of the nightmare in Florida, where Green Party nominee Nader siphoned off 2% of the vote and set the stage for the recount debacle. With the Senate nearly evenly split and a number of races quite close, Dems are growing increasingly worried that Green spoilers could take enough liberal votes from their candidates to tip control to the GOP.

In six hotly contested states from New Hampshire to Missouri, Naderite nominees are raiding the political base of Senate Democrats. While the Greens are a mere blip in most polls, their votes could be pivotal in photo-finish races. And nowhere are Democrats more worried than in Minnesota.

No one gives Green Party standard- bearer Ray Tricomo, a blind former teacher with just $55 in his campaign coffers, a chance of defeating Democrat Paul D. Wellstone. But in this maverick state, where an Independent could replace third-party Governor Jesse Ventura, Tricomo has registered up to 3% in polls. And with Wellstone in a dead heat with Republican moderate Norm Coleman, losing a small number of left-wing votes could sink the two-term senator.

Wellstone's predicament is deliciously ironic, considering that he is perhaps the most liberal member of the Senate and a devout environmentalist. But his 100% ratings from the League of Conservation Voters and the AFL-CIO weren't enough for the Greens. "Wellstone can be progressive, but he hasn't gone far enough," Tricomo insists.

The Green Party's kamikaze campaigns have raised questions about its motives and relevance. With its dismal record of winning elections, the Greens seem destined to be known mostly for the Dems they have undermined. Says Don Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Wisconsin: "The Greens tend to be true believers. They think Democrats aren't pure enough. They don't care if they give elections to Republicans."

But the thought of unseating liberal icon Wellstone--and throwing control of the Senate to the GOP--is too much for some Greens. Nader's 2000 running mate, Winona LaDuke, unsuccessfully urged Minnesota Greens to forgo the Senate race. Nader appeared with Tricomo at a September campaign event but shied away from an outright endorsement.

Nader may be hedging on Wellstone, but he still would be happy to see other Dems fall. Chief among them: California Governor Gray Davis, whom he sees as soft on business and weak on the environment. Polls give Green candidate Peter M. Cameho, a Venezuela-born '60s radical whom Ronald Reagan once called one of the 10 most dangerous people in California, up to 5% of the vote. The bulk of those voters are leftists and Latinos who might otherwise be expected to favor Davis. Republican Bill Simon fought--but failed--to have Cameho included in an Oct. 7 debate.

While the Greens are earning few Democratic friends, Republicans may have a third-party problem of their own. In New Hampshire, some hard-right supporters of Senator Bob Smith--ousted in the GOP primary by Representative John E. Sununu--are threatening to conduct a write-in campaign. That would improve the chances of the Democratic nominee, Governor Jeanne Shaheen.

The major parties are seeking to marginalize these ideological zealots. But they can't completely ignore them. Despite the tens of millions of dollars the Democrats and Republicans are spending in the battle for the Senate, in the end it could be a few thousand fringe voters who control their destiny. When corporate crime was crowding every other story off Page One, Washington seemed eager to pump money into the Securities & Exchange Commission. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act promised a 67% boost in funding, but because of the budget impasse, the SEC hasn't seen a dime of it--even as its expenses are rocketing up.

With Congress funding most of the government one week at a time, spending has been held to last year's levels--about $460 million at the SEC, far short of the promised $766 million. The SEC added 100 new lawyers and accountants last summer, but if the stalemate continues, it has no hope of hiring the 300 to 400 staffers necessary to meet Sarbanes-Oxley's mandate for new rules and tougher enforcement.

The one bright spot: Congress promised to bring SEC salaries up to the level of those at the Fed and other financial regulators, and it will fund at least a first round of raises. But a bigger risk looms. In November, when the new accounting oversight board starts staffing up, its first-year costs of $25 million to $50 million will be drawn from the SEC's budget. Congress designed this loan as a quick way to get the board running--but with funding frozen, that will leave the SEC even more strapped.

SEC Chairman Harvey L. Pitt wants more money but won't buck the White House, which insists that no agencies get increases until Congress passes its regular spending bills. That's battering the morale of overworked lawyers and accountants investigating corporate fraud. If cash doesn't come soon, the the SEC crunch could become a crisis.

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