Published on Saturday, July 1, 2000 in the New York Times
The Green Candidate:
Unlike '96, Nader Runs Hard in '00
by Sam Howe Verhovek
OAKLAND, Calif., June 28 -- It was nearing 10 o'clock at night, but in the sweltering lecture hall that served as the stage for this political rally, the Green Party's nominee for president of the United States was still going strong.

He sharply criticized an "apartheid economy" that was benefiting only the rich, and he bemoaned the state of affairs in a country with "far more problems than it deserves and far more solutions than it applies." And he scoffed at the notion that he might be a spoiler, drawing enough votes away from Al Gore to tip the election to George W. Bush.

Allen Richardson, center Associated Press

Ralph Nader met Lourdes Diaz, a resident of a housing project, in a campaign trip to Los Angeles this week.

"You can't spoil a system," the candidate, Ralph Nader, said, "that's spoiled to the core."

The audience of 300 people or so loved it, repeatedly breaking into applause and giving the 66-year-old Mr. Nader a standing ovation coming in and heading out.

It is impossible to know whether, as current polls suggest, Nader's Raiders will have more impact on the race than the Buchanan Brigades of the likely Reform Party nominee, Patrick J. Buchanan. But one thing is clear on the campaign trail with Mr. Nader, the country's best-known consumer advocate: he is running an exceedingly more energetic race than he did four years ago, when he essentially stood in as a protest candidate, spending less than $5,000, speaking rarely and taking 1 percent of the vote.

"This is the difference between a person running and a person standing still," he said by way of comparison to his 1996 White House bid.

He has campaigned in every state this year -- flying commercial coach class, frequently using his senior-citizen's discount -- and appears well on his way to his goal of raising $5 million, with the help of the direct-mail network he has built over the years and plugs from several big Hollywood names.

He may wind up as a passing phenomenon in this campaign, like former Senator Bill Bradley or Senator John McCain. But for now, Mr. Nader is attracting a lot of attention -- among the news media, among left-leaning voters who see him as a more reliably liberal voice than Mr. Gore, and among leaders of organized labor, who agree with his stands on trade. Mr. Nader is a staunch critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, both of which he depicts as evidence of a "corporate globalization" that harms worker rights and the environment.

Polls in recent weeks have put him at 5 percent to 10 percent of the vote.

It would be a stretch to call Mr. Nader a natural politician, and his one-and-three-quarter-hour nomination acceptance speech on Sunday in Denver may have been a tad long. But he seems highly animated, and has a lot of sound bites down. He even claims to be enjoying his life as a politician, though he chooses a rather grim analogy to explain why.

"Oh, I have programmed myself so that if something is important to do, it's enjoyable," he said in an interview on Monday, after speaking at a women's center in the Mission District of San Francisco.

"I mean, there are some professional people who do that, too," Mr. Nader continued. "A good doctor, if he believes it's important to treat people, he'll enjoy treating people, even though outsiders may say, 'Oh, my God, what horrible tragedies and near misses, what pain you're dealing with.' "

In Mr. Nader's depiction, most of the country is in pain.

"At no time in our history have the children of America been in such crisis," he said in San Francisco the other day. And most wage earners, he told the crowd here, are working harder and longer than ever but have less purchasing power than they had in 1968.

Mr. Nader sees the West Coast -- with its mix of liberals, radicals, environmentalists and others who lean to the left -- as a fertile ground for his campaign. And indeed in California, where Mr. Nader has been involved in tort initiatives and has campaigned for so-called "patient protection" and H.M.O.-reform initiatives, polls show his support in the 5 percent to 7 percent range.

Though the number is small, much of that support comes at the expense of Vice President Gore, who most analysts believe has to carry California to win in November. But even with Mr. Nader campaigning hard in the state, Democrats here profess to be little concerned about his impact.

Rather than reaching out to Mr. Nader and his backers, they have so far been dismissive.

"Ralph Nader is a 66-year-old Corvair in this race ready to be rear-ended," said Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party. "This is the most serious vote of people's lives and they're not going to throw it away."

Mr. Mulholland said his party would not "waste one ad" campaigning against the Green candidate.

"Nader became famous because of the Corvair and he's been doing college campuses ever since," he said. "And now he wants to be president? It's a joke; it's ridiculous. Only in America can someone completely irrelevant run for president."

Politically, Mr. Nader's message is a bit complicated. He says that he hopes his candidacy will energize turnout for Democratic candidates in close races for the House of Representatives, and thus help turn power over to House Democratic leaders, and away from the Republicans in the House leadership whom he calls "beyond the pale."

But at the presidential level, Mr. Nader has nothing but venom for Mr. Gore and President Clinton, whom he accuses of offering "some of the most intensive demonstrations of political cowardliness in American history." He says the race offers voters two "Republicrat" candidates, barely distinguishable.

"The only distinction between Bush and Gore is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when big corporations knock on the door," Mr. Nader said the other day in Los Angeles, campaigning outside a public housing project.

A seasoned political strategist might suggest that while Mr. Nader remains so hot, he should be barnstorming the country. He did follow up his nomination acceptance in Denver with the swing here, and he said he plans many such swings. But afterward, he headed back to Washington, D.C., where aides said he planned to spend the rest of the week.

Here in Oakland, speaking on Monday at a downtown school called the University of Creation Spirituality, Mr. Nader elicited hisses of agreement from the crowd when he blasted several big-name Democrats in California, including Gov. Gray Davis and Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Among the central planks of his campaign are pledges to enact universal health insurance, to change labor laws to make it easier for unions to organize and to eliminate corporate welfare.

If there was any good news for Mr. Gore out of the rally here, it would seem to be that Mr. Nader's crowd was, by and large, so left-leaning that many voters there were not even the vice president's to lose. Several people in the audience said they had voted for Green or Libertarian Party candidates in the past.

What seemed to resonate with them most was Mr. Nader's "honesty -- just the sense that nobody is going to own him," as Corine Thornton, a 77-year-old retired waitress, put it. She voted for Mr. Nader four years ago, Ms. Thornton said, because "I just was no longer satisfied with voting for the lesser of two evils."

Mateo Williford, a 28-year-old self-described "traveling activist," rejected the idea that a vote for Mr. Nader was a wasted vote.

"If we're ever going to have the possibility of three, four, five political parties," he said, "we have to make the choice to start bringing those in."

Still, some people were not even sure about the whole electoral effort on Mr. Nader's behalf.

"I'm disappointed that all this energy is being put into the political system," said Jonah Zern, 22, a recent Cornell University graduate with a degree in environmental policy. "I mean, the idea that one person can represent 250 million people is absurd."

Mr. Nader is not without potential vulnerabilities. Eyebrows were raised recently when the financial disclosure statements of Mr. Nader, America's most famous corporation-basher, revealed that he was worth nearly $4 million, in large part because of some savvy stock investments in high-technology companies.

Mr. Nader scoffed at the notion that there was anything untoward about reaping such gains. He said that he lived on about $25,000 a year, giving away 80 percent of his after-tax income, and that any of his gains represented a "de facto philanthropic fund" for his favorite causes.

No one really expects it, but what if Mr. Nader wound up in "that corporate prison we used to call the White House," as he describes it, dealing with the lawmakers "who have turned Capitol Hill into Withering Heights"?

Would he find it all daunting? Mr. Nader thought about the question for a while, and replied no: "First of all, I've been in Washington too long, I've seen what kind of characters were in power, who should have been daunted but weren't."

So, no, 'daunting' was not the right word.

"I would find it challenging to be president," he said. " 'Daunting' has almost a stuck-in-the-headlights, taken-aback sense, that maybe you're surprised by what you find yourself having to cope with. I don't think that would be the case."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company