Rejecting pleas from Democratic leaders and some former allies, liberal activist Ralph Nader announced yesterday that he is entering the 2004 presidential race as an independent.
Many Democrats blame Nader, who received 2.8 million votes as the Green Party nominee four years ago, for enabling George W. Bush to become president. Had Nader not run, most who voted for him would have supported Al Gore, argue Democratic leaders, who had implored Nader to stay out of this year's race.
"After careful thought, and my desire to retire our supremely selected president, I've decided to run," Nader said yesterday on NBC's Meet the Press.
He attacked what he called the "two-party duopoly," saying it offers Americans no real choice, stifles political competition and discourages millions from voting.
The campaign may be something of a last hurrah for the Harvard-educated lawyer who came to national attention four decades ago by exposing safety hazards in U.S. automobiles. Nader turns 70 this week.
A perennial candidate, he has competed in every presidential election since 1992, when he sought write-in votes in New Hampshire's primary.
Political analysts predict he will get less support than four years ago but say he could still be a factor in a close race.
Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who failed to talk Nader out of running, said: "It will be much more difficult for him." He called Nader's decision "unfortunate."
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, played down any potential threat from a Nader candidacy.
"I'm going to appeal to everybody in this race, and we'll make it unnecessary in the end for an alternative," Kerry said at a campaign stop in Atlanta.
Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, said Nader's candidacy "will not impact my campaign."
For weeks, Democratic Party officials had lobbied Nader, publicly and privately, to remain on the sidelines.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, chairman of the Democratic National Convention and a possible vice presidential candidate, called Nader's decision "a total act of ego."
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a former national Democratic chairman, predicted that Nader would get fewer than one-third of the votes he got in 2000.
Even that, however, could prove significant if the election is extremely close.
In 2000, Nader received about 2 percent of the vote nationwide. But he received more than 97,000 votes in Florida, which Gore lost by 537 votes. He received 22,000 votes in New Hampshire, which Gore lost by 7,200 votes. Had Gore won either state, he would be president.
Nader disputed the notion that he tipped the last election to Bush, calling it a "what-if game" that downgrades third-party candidates to "second-class citizenship."
"Entrepreneurs have to be given a chance in the marketplace. Somehow, it's OK to have a two-party duopoly that is converging more and more, where the towering similarities dwarf the dwindling real differences that the Democrats are willing to fight over," he said.
The Democratic National Committee said Nader has promised that "he would not criticize the Democratic nominee but would focus on the failings of the Bush administration."
On television yesterday, though, Nader didn't spare the Democratic Party as he chided the political establishment for allowing Washington to become "corporate-occupied territory."
"The two parties are ferociously competing to see who's going to go to the White House and take orders from their corporate paymasters," he said. Both parties have failed the country, he said, "one with a D-, the Republicans; one with a D+, the Democrats."
"The liberal intelligentsia has got to ask itself a tough question," Nader said. "For 25 years they have let their party run away from them. For 25 years they've let their party become a captive of corporate interests. And now they want to block the American people from having more choices and voices."
He said it was "contemptuous" to deprive Americans of the range of choices that voters in multiparty democracies in Western Europe and Canada enjoy. He said it was "contemptuous" for critics to accuse him of running as a spoiler.
"We've got to fight" the notion that "anyone who dares challenge the two-party system" is a spoiler, he said.
Nader acknowledged that getting his name on the ballot nationwide would be "like climbing a cliff with a slippery rope," because laws in some states make it difficult for independents to run. His campaign has set a goal of obtaining 13,500 signatures from voters in Maryland by March 2 to meet the state's ballot requirements.
Meanwhile, Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie said, "The fact is that if Ralph Nader runs, President Bush is going to be re-elected, and if Ralph Nader doesn't run, President Bush is going to be re-elected."