WASHINGTON – Four years ago, Ralph Nader (search) had a seat on the Sunday talk shows, a spot on 43 state ballots and a gutsy low-budget campaign that was packing in supporters. Unbowed at age 70, he's back this year sounding the same pox-on-both-your-houses message. But this time he stands at just 1 percent in the polls and former allies are trying to get him to sit down.
"Welcome to the politics of joy and justice," Nader called out to 15,000 noisy fans who crammed Madison Square Garden four years ago this week to hear celebrities like Susan Sarandon (search), Michael Moore (search) and Bill Murray extol him as a clarion voice of democracy.
When the fog of Election Day cleared, Nader had 2.9 million votes — 2.7 percent of all ballots cast — and no regrets that his outsider candidacy just might have tilted the election in favor of George W. Bush. Among many Democrats, though, there was anger that he hadn't dropped out of the race. And even among some Nader voters, there was a sinking sense of buyer's remorse.
His message hasn't changed. "We're all held hostage to this two-party, winner-takes-all dictatorship," he said last week in Portland, Maine, accusing both the Republican and Democratic parties of being captive to corporate interests and deaf to ordinary citizens.
But Nader has had to claw his way onto ballots around the country in the face of an aggressive anti-Nader campaign spearheaded by some of his former allies. When the dust settles on various legal challenges, Nader, who complains of Democratic "dirty tricks" to keep him off state ballots, probably will appear on about 35. His name will be absent in three of his top four vote-getting states from 2000: California, Massachusetts and Texas.
Nader's place in history also has been muddied. Decades hence, will he be remembered as a fearless consumer advocate and defender of democracy beholden to no one, as a self-absorbed spoiler who tilted one or perhaps even two presidential elections toward Bush, or something in between?
Nader, with characteristic harrumph, shrugs off questions about his legacy, saying no one's about to rip out the seat belts he helped fight to get in cars. His candidacy, he argues, should be measured by the purity of his ideas and ideals, not his chances of winning. And, furthermore, he rejects the widely held belief that his candidacy hurts John Kerry more than Bush.
Critics, meanwhile, say Nader has compromised his reputation for independence by allowing conservatives to help get him on state ballots and by accepting their contributions.
These days, Nader's rallies tend to draw dozens or maybe hundreds rather than thousands. And his standing in the polls is on the wane — trailing even the margin of sampling error, as Jay Leno likes to joke. Nader is drawing 1 or 2 percent support in national polls, although registering as high as 4 to 6 percent in some recent surveys in Maine, New York, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Make no mistake, he still has his followers.
Lee Christopher, a 66-year-old retiree who turned out to see Nader speak at Yale last week, dismissed the idea that her vote for Nader would be a "spoiler" ballot that hurts Kerry.
"If you love somebody and you want him to be president, it's never a vote for somebody else," she said. "It's a vote for him."
Seated nearby was her friend Carolyn Mongillo, who believes in everything Nader stands for but doesn't want to help throw the election to Bush.
"That terrifies me," she said, shaking her head. Mongillo is torn over whether to vote for Nader or Kerry.
An analysis of AP-Ipsos polling indicates Nader's supporters tend to look a lot like Kerry's although they are somewhat more likely to be young and white. Some progressives believe that the cultural hero of the 1970s and 1980s has lost his way.
"If you organize your politics around denouncing other people's hypocrisy it's not always the wisest strategy," said Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor who has known and admired Nader since childhood but believes his candidacy is a mistake. "Sometimes other people's compromises drive us so crazy that we don't recognize how we are compromising ourselves."
Raskin serves as legal adviser to votepair.org, a Web site organized by progressive activists to encourage Nader supporters in contested states to swap their votes with those of Kerry supporters in "safe" states. That way, they can have their support for Nader registered nationally without risk of tilting the balloting toward Bush in a battleground state.
Only about 2,000 people have registered this year, Raskin said, compared with about 36,000 who signed up for similar swaps four years ago.
Nader himself sends mixed signals about how he views his candidacy. During his appearance in Portland, Nader rebutted the spoiler label, saying he wished Democrats would "stop defining spoiler as anyone who takes votes" from Kerry and isn't a Republican. But go to his Web site, www.votenader.org, and you can order official "spoiler" gear, from T-shirts to playing cards.
Calvin Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said Nader's candidacy is puzzling.
"There is a sense on the part of many that he is self-infatuated and sort of blinking in the limelight," said Jillson.
Some former allies who are now working furiously against his candidacy are dismayed that it has come to this.
Robert Brandon, whom Nader inspired to become a public interest lawyer, is a co-founder of United Progressives for Victory, an independent group that has been working to keep Nader off state ballots and draw attention to the support that his candidacy has drawn from Republicans who believe that Nader's candidacy will hurt Kerry.
"For me, it's sort of sad," said Brandon, who ran one of Nader's good-government organizations for five years. "For a lot of people, the only thing they know about Ralph Nader is that he is potentially the person who helped get Bush elected the first time and has the potential to do it again. They don't understand the contributions he's made."