Published on Monday, October 2, 2000 in the Boston Globe
Nader 'Super Rally' Draws 12,000 To Boston's FleetCenter
by Yvonne Abraham

He may not be part of the biggest show to hit Boston this week, but perpetual outsider Ralph Nader had plenty of company yesterday.

The Green Party presidential nominee, who will not be allowed onstage with Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush at tomorrow night's presidential debate, got a rock star's reception from a crowd of 12,000 at the FleetCenter. That's bigger than either major party candidate usually attracts.

Let Ralph Debate in Boston
Green Party supporters, including Paula Brackett, of Boston, left, display signs calling for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader's inclusion in the presidential debates while Nader addressed the crowd at the FleetCenter in Boston, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2000. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
The huge arena, the thousands of devotees, the ticker-tape raining down from the ceiling, the giant flashing screens leading the audience in loud chants of ''Let Ralph debate!'' - all of this was decidedly un-Nader-like. More often, the longtime consumer advocate plays to crowds in the tens, with simpler - in fact, no - production values, and, much to his chagrin, far from the television cameras.

But yesterday, Nader's condemnations of corporate greed, the current electoral system, the two major parties, Washington's handling of the environment, and inequality all raised deafening cheers from this audience. Talk of his exclusion from the debates drew the most passionate responses from the crowd, most of whom had paid $10 to attend.

Spotlights projecting the words ''Let Ralph Debate'' swept the stage, as the audience chanted for his inclusion.

''The keys to the gate are being held by the two parties we're trying to challenge,'' Nader said, referring to the Commission on Presidential Debates, composed of Democratic and Republican officials.

The commission allows candidates to participate in the debates only if they can garner 15 percent of voters in national polls. Nader, who has attracted quite high numbers of voters in some states (17 percent in Alaska, and 6 percent in Massachusetts, for example) is currently at about 3 percent nationally, according to a Zogby International tracking poll.

Ralph Nader
Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader addresses a crowd in Boston, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2000. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Yesterday's appearance was only the latest in a string of Nader rallies that have drawn huge crowds: 10,000 in Portland, Ore., 12,000 in Minneapolis, and 10,000 in Seattle (though that rally had the added appeal of Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder).

Those are huge turnouts for a candidate who continually laments the lack of media attention paid to his campaign, and more remarkable because Nader's share of voters in recent national polls has been dropping.

Nader and his camp say that events like yesterday's prove the polls are wrong, and that the major parties are in for a shock come election day, when unlikely voters venture out to the ballots.

''National polling numbers don't reflect grass-roots third party support because they only target likely voters,'' said Nader press secretary Laura Jones. ''They don't reflect the young voters who are pouring into these events and voters who sat out the last elections because they're alienated from and disenchanted with the corporate parties.''

Others say Nader's big crowds won't make much of a dent in support for Democrats and Republicans, but that in a one- or two-point race, his 3 percent could loom large and hurt them anyway.

Either way, Nader has struck a chord with tens of thousands of activists in liberal states like Massachusetts.

At yesterday's rally, as at most of the recent ones, the audience heard speeches by fervent Nader supporters like former talk show host Phil Donahue, who said that voters would never allow the major parties to exclude third party candidates again.

''For this bit of arrogance, for this usurpation of the people's power, millions of people will vote for Nader this campaign season,'' he said, to loud applause.

Historian of the working class Howard Zinn said ''an election that excludes an important candidate is not a democratic election.''

''Ralph Nader has a fatal flaw,'' Zinn said. ''He tells the truth.''

Nader has long maintained that if he could get into the debates, he could pose a serious threat to the major party candidates.

''I've campaigned in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,'' Nader said recently on a swing through the district. ''But you can do that for a hundred years and not reach as many voters as you can in national debates.''

Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, center, exchanges a hug with Green Party vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, moments after Nader addressed a crowd at the FleetCenter in Boston, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2000. Nader is not scheduled to participate in Tuesday's presidential debate at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Though they are drawing the most local coverage, rallies like yesterday's are far from typical of the Nader campaign.

More characteristic was his recent day in Washington, D.C., where Nader, driven around in an unmarked drab gray minivan to campaign for D.C. statehood, visited a poor neighborhood, and continually lamented the lack of attention paid him despite his past and his potential.

''Here he is, folks!'' a supporter with a bullhorn yelled at passing pedestrians in Anacostia, where Nader had gone to protest the absence of grocery stores in the mostly black neighborhood. ''Ralph Nader! Right here! Right now!''

But the only people who turned up for a visit to a farmer's market at the Liberty AME church were the four vendors who were already there, four reporters, several Green Party officials and Nader's own film crew. Nader was especially angry at the Washington Post for staying away from his first full day of campaigning in their backyard.

''By what criteria of newsworthiness can they refuse to cover me on the first full day I'm spending campaigning in the district?'' Nader asked. ''See, and that's the virus you have to deal with.''

Annie Dunlap, who worked the farmers' stall, said she liked Nader but couldn't say why, or whether she'd be voting for him. Sharon Minter, another vendor, thought Nader seemed nice, but was determined to vote Democratic in November, ''because the party has done right overall for my people.''

If he could only get to the voters, Nader often says, he could easily break the 15 percent mark in the polls. But he says the media, which he calls ''a weapon of mass distraction,'' won't let him.

Hence his unsuccessful fight to be included in the debates.

Now Nader's electoral fortunes are more closely tied to those of Al Gore, the man he has pilloried most enthusiastically on the trail.

In the early summer, Nader seemed like more of a threat to Gore. He garnered high enough polling numbers in California to worry Democrats, and the Teamsters and United Auto Workers said they were considering endorsing him. Back then, Nader's constant refrain was that there was no difference between the presidential candidates, and that a vote for Gore was the same as a vote for Bush.

The vice president tacked to the left somewhat, his speech at the Democratic Convention full of populist appeals. In the end, the unions ended their flirtation with Nader and endorsed Gore.

''They said I couldn't win, and they were going for the winner,'' Nader explained.

So have other voters, according to the polls.

Voters' preferences during the spring and summer were ''cost-free at that point,'' said Charles O. Jones, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. ''I don't doubt that it expressed their identification with Nader, but as we get close to the election, it isn't Gore versus Nader versus Bush for them. It's just Gore versus Bush, and so they're going to go for Gore.''

The latest Zogby International poll shows Nader at 3 percent nationally, though Zogby believes Nader is likely to end up with 5 percent on election day - enough to qualify the Green Party for federal funds in 2004.

While some voters at yesterday's rally said they would vote for Nader no matter what, others said they would do so only if Gore seemed safe on election day.

''I like Ralph Nader a lot, I like what he stands for,'' said Carla Herwitz, of Fall River. ''I don't want to see the world run by corporations. I think if it seems clear that Al Gore will take Massachusetts, I'll vote for Ralph Nader.''

Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company