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Election 2004

Nader clings to lonely quest

Even as Ralph Nader's friends walk away from his presidential race, he adamantly refuses to concede anything.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published March 28, 2004

CRAWFORD, Texas - The peace rally in the Crawford park should be fertile ground for Ralph Nader's presidential campaign.

People carry signs that say "Bush Lied - People Died" and wear buttons that say "Non-Violence Kicks A--!" One man has a T-shirt that depicts President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld all with pig noses. The caption says "War Pigs."

There are about 300 people in the park and it looks like a Nader crowd - a woman with pink hair, a guy with a Mohawk. But shortly after Nader steps to the podium, people shout a refrain the candidate has heard a lot recently:

"Don't run!" hollers one man.

"Don't run!" shouts someone else.

Nader's speech gets hearty applause, especially when he calls for Bush to be impeached. But afterward, some of Nader's fans say they won't support his campaign.

Chrispy Carter, a college admissions registrar from Bryan, Texas, says she likes Nader, but "he may end up taking votes away from Kerry. The main thing is getting George Bush out of office."

The comments from Carter and others at Nader campaign events show how the consumer advocate is struggling because of his role in the last election. Although the latest polls show him with 5 to 7 percent of the vote nationally, his speeches draw small crowds. Friends and longtime supporters have abandoned him because they fear he will again play the spoiler and help Bush.

After four decades as a hero for American consumers, Nader suddenly seems alone. But always cocksure, he has responded by attacking his friends and former allies with the same ferocity he used against enemies like General Motors.

He says the people who have urged him not to run are "simpletons" and the "liberal intelligentsia" and says they are out of touch with real people.

Watching for cream pies

When Nader campaigns, he always has a bodyguard.

At a press conference in Austin, it is a friendly off-duty police officer named Craig Pierce, who wears a khaki vest with several bulging pockets. He won't reveal if they contain weapons. "For all I know, you may be friends with someone named Osama," he says deadpan.

The police officers seem out of place guarding Nader. He has spent four decades criticizing the establishment and now wants the establishment to protect him.

But Nader says the officers not only guard against assassins' bullets, they protect him from pranks like a pie in the face. He got smashed with a cream pie last summer when he endorsed a Green Party candidate in California and says he doesn't want it to happen again.

So, as Pierce keeps watch for hit men with pies, Nader steps to the podium at an Austin hotel and unleashes a tirade against the Texas Legislature.

"In all of my surveying of legislatures in the United States, I have never come across a more corrupt state legislature," he says. He calls it "craven, greedy, insensitive" and "unpatriotic."

He says the Texas Legislature is beholden to corporate interests and that the Republicans who control it "are basically pursuing cash-register politics."

Most of his speech is about Texas. He offers little about why he wants to be leader of the Free World. It's not until reporters ask questions that he discusses his presidential campaign in much detail. Even then, Nader primarily talks about getting on the ballot and his standing in the polls, not his national or global agenda.

There are no campaign signs or brochures in the room. He seems more like he's on the college lecture circuit than running for president.

Slipping on banana peels

Nader is accompanied in Texas by a handful of aides and friends, including Craig McDonald, a balding political activist who wears a stylish sport coat and sandals.

McDonald, 53, was in the second generation of Nader's Raiders. He ran a Michigan grass-roots group and then worked for the largest Nader group, Public Citizen.

McDonald helped Nader's presidential campaign in 2000 but does not want his friend to run this time.

"My No. 1 priority is to beat the Bush regime," McDonald says after Nader leaves to give an interview. "I think a vote for Ralph is a vote for Bush."

Later, when Nader is asked which of his past supporters have urged him not to run, he replies, "Everybody."

He says the celebrities who backed him in 2000 - Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, among others - have abandoned him this time. So have many of the Raiders, the idealistic activists who worked on his early crusades for workplace safety, consumer protections and cleaner air and water.

In a March 8 column in the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg praised Nader for his lifelong accomplishments but said his 2000 campaign tipped the election to Bush. (Nader got 97,488 votes in Florida, and Bush won by 537.)

Hertzberg warned that, "If Nader once again succeeds in making himself the decisive factor in a Bush victory, then his legacy will be less than zero. His legacy will be George W. Bush."

Nader responds by calling Hertzberg a "simpleton."

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Nader said Hertzberg is "not even as smart as an average New York Yankees fan - or an average New York Mets fan."

He said Hertzberg does not include other factors that helped Bush win, such as the assistance Bush received from Gov. Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris in Florida and the presence of Pat Buchanan on the Florida ballot. Nader said Hertzberg also ignores that Gore received many votes because Nader pushed him to be more populist.

Nader said Hertzberg and others are so obsessed with his role in 2000 that they ignore the many other factors. "The bias is so heavy that it shrivels an intelligent mind into a simpleton."

He said, "Gore slipped on 20 banana peels - and I was one of them."

Nader is perplexed that so many people don't want him to run. He said, "The main opposition to this candidacy is by people who agree with us on the issues. Strange."

"Dialing for same dollars'

So why is Nader running?

Many Democrats say he is being driven by his ego.

"It looks like this is all about Ralph. It's not about the politics," says Bob Poe, the former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "Where has he been? He's been silent for the past four years."

But Nader says he is running for the same reasons he ran last time, to provide an alternative to the Republican and Democratic parties, which he contends have sold out to big corporations. (A T-shirt from Nader's 2000 campaign said, "Bush and Gore Make Me Wanna Ralph.")

He hopes to put pressure on the Democrats to move back to the left and get them to challenge the Republicans on tax cuts and foreign policy and embrace more populist causes. Nader says he recently told Democratic leaders: "Let's compete and collaborate at the same time."

He hopes to get on the ballot in all states (he was on 43 plus the District of Columbia last time), but it's too early to predict how well he'll succeed. He rejects suggestions that he skip battleground states such as Florida to avoid hurting Kerry.

"We're building for the future. You can't have people work their heads off as volunteers for you and then betray them," he says.

But so far, he has focused on Republican states such as Texas where Kerry is such a long-shot that Nader cannot hurt him. Many Democrats hope Nader will keep his focus there and avoid the swing states.

Nader predicts he will ultimately get more votes from Republicans than Democrats because GOP voters are unhappy with Bush about the budget deficit and his lax attitude on corporate crime. He says many voters will take part in Internet vote-swapping, where people in battleground states pair up with others in Republican states. The Nader supporters in the battleground states would agree to vote for Kerry while the Kerry backers in GOP states vote for Nader.

Early polls show him getting 5 to 7 percent of the national vote, with much of his support from young voters. But contrary to Nader's claims that he will win more votes from Republicans, most polls show his presence in the race hurts Kerry.

On the campaign trail, Nader doesn't hide his disdain for the Democrats - "They are dialing for the same dollars, selling our elections, selling our government" - but he spends most of his energy attacking President Bush. He has kept his promise not to criticize Kerry.

"No one wants to beat Bush more than I do," he says. "Nobody."

Lecturing at Denny's

Nader stops at a Denny's just off Interstate 35 in Norman, Okla., to hold a news conference.

It is a Sunday morning and Nader, 70, appears to be wearing the same blue suit, shirt and tie he wore all day Saturday. His frizzy gray hair is disheveled. He looks tired and his voice is craggy.

Only three reporters show up, a small group that would be ideal for a casual interview. But Nader steps to the podium and delivers a speech as if there were 1,000 people in the Denny's banquet room.

It's an odd scene: rows of empty tables, each covered with a clear plastic tablecloth; Nader lecturing the reporters from the podium, with an American flag and a pastel drawing of a Native American girl behind him.

Once again, he says little about his presidential plans, but he complains about the difficulty of getting on the ballot and attacks the legislature.

He says Oklahoma has a "corrupt state legislature and political system" and says corporations are pushing "tort deform" to limit people's rights to file lawsuits.

"It's time for a progressive revolution in Oklahoma."

His next stop is a theater in Oklahoma City. It holds 550 people, but only 100 show up, plus three off-duty cops who eye the crowd for pies.

Here, as at the Crawford rally, is a core of loyal supporters who agree with Nader that the Republican and Democratic parties are beholden to big business.

Ron McCain, a 27-year-old grocery cashier who has voted for third-party candidates the past two presidential elections, said he likes Nader's blunt rhetoric. "He tells it like it is."

But Donna Rowlan, a special education teacher from Oklahoma City, says that while she likes Nader's message, she won't vote for him.

"We love Ralph, we want to hear him speak the truth," she says. But she will vote for John Kerry because "he could beat Bush."

There might be fewer Nader loyalists this year, but they can be aggressive.

In Austin, while Nader is out of the room, campaign aide Jason Kafoury tries to get McDonald to sign a petition to put Nader on the Texas ballot. But McDonald won't sign.

"I'm still thinking it over," he says.

About 20 minutes later, Kafoury tries again in the hotel lobby. But this time, he asks McDonald in front of Nader.

With his friend looking on, McDonald shrugs and signs the petition.

As he signs, he tells Nader, "This only applies to Texas, Ralph. No other state."

- Times researchers Caryn Baird and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 28, 2004, 01:35:48]


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