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Inside Politics

Nader on the radar

What they'll be talking about come November

By Carlos Watson
CNN Political Analyst

Editor's Note: Welcome to The Inside Edge with Carlos Watson. Each Wednesday, I'll try to offer fresh insights from the political arena and beyond with a bit of retrospective and foresight. More often than not, I hope you'll find the columns intriguing and original enough, so that we can both say: you read it here first.

Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader

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Carlos Watson
Ralph Nader
George W. Bush

PALO ALTO, California (CNN) -- This week, I look ahead not only to the general election (both strategies and potential issues, domestic and international), but also a few things that perhaps you haven't heard of yet. I also highlight an up-and-comer in one of the nation's most hotly contested Senate races.

Nader will help the Democrats

I predict Ralph Nader will help the Democrats this fall. How so? After the 2000 election, Nader is likely to be strategic about where he gets on the ballot, avoiding potentially close contests in states like Florida and New Hampshire, and instead getting on the ballot in heavily Democratic or Republican states where he is unlikely to affect the state outcome, for example California, New York, Alabama, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Alaska. By qualifying for 25 to 30 states but avoiding key battleground states, Nader will have enough legitimacy to garner free media and be a part of the national political debate.

Nader's criticisms of what he calls corporate cronyism are likely to strike a chord with independent voters who already see President Bush as being too close to big business. These criticisms are likely to have special punch this summer when at least four major corporate corruption trials, including one concerning Enron, will likely put the issue on the front burner. So Nader's critiques could hurt Bush in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and other battleground states, but not rob Kerry of significant votes in those contests. It's not what many senior Democrats are expecting (understandably), but if it happens, remember that you heard it here first.

Bush in blue

While Democrats eagerly eye states that Bush won in 2000 for possible 2004 victories -- so-called red states such as Arizona, Missouri and Ohio -- there are a number of blue states in which Republican chances may have improved significantly over the past three years. One is Minnesota (10 electoral votes), which Gore won by only two points and where Republican Norm Coleman won a hotly contested Senate election in 2002. Plus, the Minnesota economy is healthier than the rest of the country. New Mexico and Oregon and Pennsylvania are possible Republican targets as well.

Man to watch in Illinois

You haven't heard the name yet, but just wait. If Barack Obama, 42-year-old father of two, law professor and progressive state senator, wins the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, he will quickly become the country's hottest Senate candidate. A magna cum laude graduate of Columbia University and a Harvard Law School graduate, Obama was the first African-American to be selected president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He recently won the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, but he is in a tough race with three others, including wealthy entrepreneur Blair Hull. The primary is next week, March 16, and if Obama pulls off an improbable win, expect to hear a lot more about him.

An Olympic opportunity?

While it's not on many people's radar at the moment -- and certainly not on their political radar -- this summer's Athens Olympics could be very helpful to President Bush's re-election bid. First, if the United States does well, the event could fan American patriotism, and the president could enjoy a small but perhaps crucial bump in his approval numbers -- similar to the kind Ronald Reagan enjoyed in 1984 (remember Mary Lou Retton?).

Second and perhaps more important for a president who has been frequently criticized for failing to cooperate with traditional U.S. allies, the Olympics in July could offer a photo op for Bush to demonstrate his continuing friendship with Germany, France and others. While some Democrats might find such a photo op cynical, if such an event happens, it could help Bush with moderate Republicans and swing voters who believe that going to Iraq was right but question whether the United States damaged key international relationships in the process.

Venezuela heats up

While most Americans aren't focusing on it, Venezuela could be this summer's Haiti. Opposition leaders and the government of Hugo Chavez are in a fierce and often bloody standoff. If the violence gets much worse, given Venezuela's huge oil reserves, the United States is likely to become involved, prompting perhaps the most significant escalation of U.S. involvement in Latin America since the contra wars in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

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