Ralph Nader, the independent candidate accused by Democrats of threatening to wreck their chances of beating George Bush in November's election, has said there are no circumstances in which he will drop out of the contest.
Throwing down the gauntlet to Democrats who have pleaded with him to stand down, Mr Nader said to do so now would be an insult to his supporters and make people even more cynical about politics.
He said it was damaging to democracy that voters should have a choice between two parties that he claimed were controlled by lobbyists and corporate interests. In an interview with The Independent, Mr Nader, said: "Under no circumstances would we drop out ... [That would be an insult] to all the people who have sweated their hearts out for us and add to the cynicism of the public."
Mr Nader also said that in the unlikely circumstances that John Kerry offered him a position in a future government he would not accept it.
The comments from Mr Nader, 70, will add to the fury with which many Democrats anticipate his participation in the election. Party activists still blame Mr Nader for taking crucial support from the Democrats in the 2000 election, which saw Mr Bush assume the presidency despite having lost the popular vote. The anger directed at Mr Nader often appears to have a sharper edge than the emotions directed at Mr Bush.
Polls suggest this year's election will be equally close and that the outcome will be decided by a sliver of undecided voters in a dozen battleground states. Latest figures show that in many of these places Mr Kerry is leading Mr Bush by a small margin, but the pollster John Zogby said Mr Nader was "the difference in virtually every battleground state".
When Mr Nader ran in 2000, obtaining 2.74 per cent of the total vote, he was the official candidate of the Green Party. This time he and his running mate Peter Camejo are standing as independents and their attempt to get on the ballot has not been easy. Mr Nader accused the Democrats of running a sordid "dirty tricks campaign", doing everything they can to undermine his efforts. In addition, an umbrella group called United Progressives for Victory has initiated a series of measures to counter Mr Nader state by state. As a result of lawsuits filed by Democratic supporters, Mr Nader has so far only managed to get on to the ballot in 11 states.
"Once you accept the 'anybody-but-Bush' position, the brain really does close down," said Mr Nader. The veteran consumer rights advocate said he was the only candidate running on a truly populist platform: a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, healthcare for everyone, a living minimum wage and environmental protection. He said that while he expected Mr Bush to lose the election and Mr Kerry to become the next president, he was running to try to "pull the other way" and ensure that certain issues were debated.
"I said to Kerry months ago that we should take on Bush together - the Democrats in their way and us in ours," said Mr Nader, who said his offer of a tactical pact was ignored. The Democrats have highlighted how in certain states Republicans are fighting to get Mr Nader on the ballot - helping to collect signatures and even organizing donations - in an effort to split the anti-Bush vote. It was recently revealed that one in 10 people who donated more than $1,000 to Mr Nader is a long-time contributor to the Republicans.
Mr Kerry, meanwhile, has stepped up his demands that President Bush "stand up and stop" personal attacks that have been made by a group of Vietnam veterans questioning his claims about his military record.
At a fund-raiser on Saturday night Mr Kerry said the attacks by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group - closely linked to senior Republicans - had intensified "because in the last months they have seen me climbing in America's understanding that I know how to fight a smarter and more effective war" against terrorists.
* * * * *
The Monday Interview
Ralph Nader: 'Once you accept the anything-but-Bush position, the brain really does close down'
Ralph Nader holds a unique position in American politics. Hated by Democrats, adored by his hardcore supporters and now championed by trouble-making Republicans, the 70-year-old consumer rights candidate represents many different things to different people.
The situation of the independent presidential candidate is also odd, because many progressives and those on the left who strongly agree with his politics - indeed, many of those who have long supported him - are adamantly and angrily opposed to him running. In some cases that ire - evidenced by a string of special websites as well as an orchestrated campaign against him by the Democrats - boils over into fury.
Nader does not seem to care. It may simply be a thick skin, or a huge ego, as his detractors claim, that protects him, but he says he has no regrets. "[If George Bush were re-elected] the blame would go to the Democrats," he says. "If Bush wins, the blame would go to the number two party, that lost. That is where the responsibility lies; they started with 40 per cent of the vote."
Such comments infuriate Democrats who blame Mr Nader for Al Gore's defeat in 2000 and say his presence in this year's contest threatens to condemn the US to a second, and potentially more radical, Bush term. This has led to all manner of people, among them the Democratic Party's chairman, Terry McAuliffe, pleading with Mr Nader not to run. A few weeks ago on national television, the film maker Michael Moore - who supported Mr Nader in 2000 - and the comedian Bill Maher got down on bended knee in front of the candidate and pleaded with him to drop out.
Their argument is straightforward: in 2000, though Nader won only 2.7 per cent of the vote, in key states such as Florida and New Hampshire, his presence on the ballot and the votes he took from the Democrats proved fatal to Mr Gore. In Florida, his critics argue, if just 1 per cent of Nader's 97,488 supporters had voted for Gore, he would have been president. In New Hampshire Nader took 22,198 votes, and Bush won the state by only 7,211 votes.
This time the election is shaping up to be as close. Mr Nader's opponents say that no matter how unsatisfactory a candidate one might consider John Kerry to be, he is still many times preferable to Bush; and that Mr Nader should find himself being supported in some states by Republicans working to get him on the ballot to split the anti-Bush vote should be a warning sign. He is, say his critics, nothing more than a spoiler, driven by ego and self-indulgence. Mr Nader dismisses such talk. First, he says the Democrats can blame only themselves for allowing Mr Bush to steal an election he did not win. Second, he says, exit polls showed that up to 25 per cent of those who voted for him in 2000 would have otherwise voted for Bush, up to 41 per cent for Gore but that the rest would not have bothered to vote at all.
He adds: "The other thing is that 10 times more Democrats voted for Bush than voted for Nader." Democrats never want to discuss the matter he says. "Once you accept the anybody-but-Bush position the brain really does close. They don't want to hear anything."
But however he may wish to frame it, Mr Nader's argument boils down to a choice between incremental change in November or more radical change over a longer period. For Mr Nader there is little practical difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, and the real challenge is to try to establish a third party in US politics,something, he says, the Democrats bitterly oppose.
"The corporations have won this election. They have been winning these elections for years ... If there is a difference [between the parties] it is rhetoric. Why is Kerry identical to Bush on Iraq? I evaluate the Democrats on defense as well as offence ... Why did they not stop Bush? They [say] they were against the tax cuts for the wealthy but they did not stop it even when they controlled the Senate."
He says that at a congressional level, for many Americans it is not even a choice between two parties. In a majority of seats, districts are either totally Democrat or totally Republican, an arrangement party leaders have agreed to. "The gift that they have given us is one-party choice," Mr Nader says. "There is no real choice ... It isn't even choice, it's selection ... These are strange times we live in."
Many of Mr Nader's outspoken critics say that while they support his views and may have supported him in 2000, President Bush has shown himself to be so dangerously right wing that those on the left cannot risk giving him a second term. The circumstances of this election are unique, they say, and it is not the time for experiments in breaking the two-party system.
Mr Nader's tactic, they say, should have been to run in the Democratic primaries or else to now throw the weight of the radical left behind the Kerry campaign and work for a more progressive party after the election.
Theodore Lowi, a professor of government at Cornell University, said: "[The election in 2000 came] before the true identity of George Bush had been revealed. Nader knows as well as the rest of us that, despite Kerry's lackluster leadership, there is now a radical difference between the two major parties. Moreover, Nader is running as a bullet candidate without any party affiliation; he is a mere spoiler with no future."
Again Mr Nader is again quick to dismiss such claims. He is fond of quoting the 19th-century Indiana socialist Eugene Debs, "I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want, and get it". He concedes that if someone is adamantly of the anyone-but-Bush mindset they should not vote for him but Kerry, "if your expectations levels are so low".
Mr Nader says he is trying to transform the political landscape rather than tweak it. Again turning his focus to the corporations, multinationals and lobbyists, he says: "They have shut us out from everything. You cannot get anything done. For-sale signs are up everywhere."
He has long been pushing against closed doors. Born in Winsted, Connecticut, to Lebanese immigrants who ran a bakery, Mr Nader studied at Harvard and edited the Harvard Law Review before graduating and setting up a small practice.
Mr Nader soon started speaking out against the abuse of corporate power, making headlines with his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, in which he condemned the car industry for producing unsafe vehicles. Nader's status soared when executives of General Motors hired private detectives to harass him and were then forced to apologize publicly before a nationally televised Senate committee hearing.
Backed by a group of young activist lawyers known as Nader's Raiders, he went on to produce exposés of industrial hazards, pollution, unsafe products, and governmental neglect of consumer safety laws. He is credited with a key role in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Freedom of Information Act and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
In this latest fight, Mr Nader knows he has no chance of winning more than a few per cent of voters. He remains in the election campaign, he says, to draw attention to issues that are not being discussed, and to try to force the Democrats to move to the left to attract those people considering voting for him.
He says he is amazed that the Democrats do not campaign on more populist issues; why they do not try to appeal to the millions of Americans outside the political system who do not bother vote. "Ask yourself why Kerry does not bring up these issues," Mr Nader says. "Forty-seven million Americans make under $10 an hour. Millions work for five-and-half, six dollars. You cannot live on that."
The Democrats, he says, have lost sight of what they were supposed to be fighting for. "It's all about money, who has raised the most. It becomes the end itself. When you ask the members of the House and Senate why they lost [seats] in the 2002 election they say they did not have enough money."
Education Gilbert School; Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs at Princeton University; Harvard Law School
1959 US Army
1959 Lawyer, Connecticut
1961-63 Lecturer, University of Hartford.
1967-68: Lecturer, Princeton University
1969-1990: Founded centers for research and published books on consumer protection
1996 & 2000 Green Party presidential candidate
2004 Independent presidential candidate
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd