WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, public activist -- some would say public agitator -- Ralph Nader ran for president. Or, as he puts it, "stood for" president. The distinction is that in 1996, when he got about 1 percent of the vote, he just loaned his name to the Green Party ticket but did hardly any campaigning.
This time around, Mr. Nader is running and running hard. At the close of a seven-state swing through the Midwest this month, he will have campaigned in all 50 states in a drive to gain ballot position in each of them, at the same time building grass-roots organizations.
The man who shook up the American automobile industry in 1965 with his best-selling assault on auto safety, "Unsafe at Any Speed," and has been taking on other giants ever since, says he is running in earnest now because "the corporations have taken over the government," stymying the kind of citizen advocacy he did successfully in the past.
He has no illusions, however, that his more intensified efforts are going to put him in the Oval Office in January. Rather, his goal is to construct a base for the Green Party and win a sufficient share of the popular vote in November to bring it a transfusion of federal money for the 2004 election.
A candidate who draws at least 5 percent of the vote will qualify his party, just as the Ross Perot did for the Reform Party in the 1996 election, when he managed about 8 percent. The Reform Party will get nearly $13 million from the feds this year and the Green Party would probably get about the same for 2004 if Mr. Nader draws over 5 percent. Mr. Nader, now 66, has two little-known opponents for the Green Party nomination. Neither is a threat. The party, or rather the Association of State Green Parties, will choose the nominee at a convention in Denver June 22 to June 24.
The convention is to be keynoted by Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner and liberal firebrand who is backing Mr. Nader with his customary vigor. Mr. Nader, he says, is "forging a blue-green, labor-environmentalist alliance" to challenge "the Republicrat two-party duopoly [that] is squeezing the life out of our democratic system."
Of Mr. Nader, Mr. Hightower writes on his Web site: "Thanks to his initiatives, cars have seat belts, water is cleaner, children's pajamas don't burst into flames, there's no smoking on airplanes, there are right-to-know laws about polluting factories, and our air is less toxic; the guy has saved more lives than Mother Teresa."
Mr. Hightower says Mr. Nader has a good shot at reaching 5 percent of the popular vote in November because college campuses are beginning to come alive politically to a degree he hasn't seen "since the civil rights and anti-war days. And he's doing what he has to do for the magic to happen. I think he's either going to be another footnote or he's actually going to catch on."
Todd Main, field director for the Nader campaign, says his candidate already has a staff of about 15 in the Washington office and Mr. Nader says he will have 30 full-time organizers in the field by the fall and will be on the ballot in 45 states by November.
Already, Mr. Nader points out, he is running third in the polls, behind(far behind) Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore, but ahead of Pat Buchanan, who also is seeking a ballot position in most states in his quest to be the Reform Party nominee. Although they could not be farther apart in the politics, Mr. Nader and Mr. Buchanan have talked about working together to gain access to the presidential debates in the fall if Mr. Buchanan is his party's nominee.
The prospect for more than Bush-Gore debates does not look good right now, in light of the Commission on Presidential Debates' criterion that debaters have "a realistic chance" of being elected. But Mr. Nader, noting polls that show a majority of Americans want both Mr. Buchanan and himself in the debates, expresses hope that public opinion will demand that third-party nominees be invited.
If the commission refuses, he says, news organizations could hold their own debates, and Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore would be hard-pressed to duck them. But that opinion doesn't square with history. Major-party nominees almost always have declined to include third-party candidates, and inclusion in the debates could be crucial to Mr. Nader, and to the Green Party's future.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.