The Big Question: Who is Ralph Nader, and can he make any impact on the US election?

Why are we asking this now?

Ralph Nader, a populist champion of the little guy, has just announced his sudden entry in to the dramatic campaign for the White House as an independent candidate. Nader's decision to throw his hat in to the ring to stand for president for the third consecutive election has Democrats spitting blood and Republicans cheering. Democrats fear that if there is a tight race we could see a repeat of his 2000 performance when, as the Green Party nominee, he denied the party crucial votes. He is taken seriously because of his record as a giant-slayer. Around the world people would still be driving death-traps without seat belts or airbags if Nader had not campaigned and written his book, Unsafe at Any Speed, in 1965.

He sounds good, so why are the Democrats upset?

Maybe they are not as democratic as they think. Somewhat unfairly, they blame Nader for their defeat in the 2000 election. George Bush won the election by defeating Al Gore in Florida by a mere 537 votes. Nader, then standing as a Green party candidate, got 97,000 votes, and Democrats are convinced that he denied Gore a victory and gave the world eight years of George Bush along with war in Iraq, global warming and Guantanamo Bay. In their reading of events, the defeat had nothing to do with the wooden campaigning style of the man the Bushes called "Ozone Man" and everything to do with Ralph Nader.

But did he give us Bush?

Opinions differ, but the one person who has actually studied Nader's TV ads and personal appearances in that race is Barry Burden, a professor of government at Harvard University. He comes down emphatically on Nader's side saying that he spent most of his effort campaigning in Democratic strongholds rather than setting out to rain on Al Gore's parade in swing states like Florida. In a tight race he could always make the difference and be blamed for letting the Republicans back in. But with two star candidates in Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both attracting unprecedented interest from voters, the Democrats are confident that Nader's impact will be minimal. His time has passed, they say, grasping for bits of wood.

Can he even get on the ballot?

In truth he will have a harder task this time than he did in 2000 because he is not the nominee of any one party. But he intends to get there by putting together third-party endorsements in different states from groups like the Reform Party and the Green Party. "The system is triple-rigged against any small candidate," he said. "All we can do is try to loosen it up, challenge it." Nader's big cause in recent years is the rigid two-party political system in the US and he wants to give voters something to think about that is outside the Democratic-Republican duet. "One of our priorities is civil liberties and the candidates' right to get on the ballot," he said. He says he is building for the future, trying to offer Americans a progressive – read left-wing – agenda and to get more people to run for local, state and national office.

Isn't he a natural Democrat?

You might think so, but the Democratic high command fell out with Nader long before 2000 debacle. When Ronald Reagan cleaned the Democrats' clocks in 1981 the party decided that they only way back to the White House was to turn away from Nader's (and Robert Kennedy's) dream of a new politics of empowerment and get into bed with Political Action Committees of the big corporations. The dismal result was a 27-year stretch in which there has been little to distinguish between the Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Why is Nader doing it now?

"You take that framework of people feeling locked out, shut out, marginalised and disrespected," Nader says, "In that context, I have decided to run for president." Essentially he believes that with John Edwards out of the race there is no one around to shout for the little guy. At 74 tomorrow, Nader may be the only one left in US politics who gives the "straight vanilla". He considers Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to be spineless politicians. He blasts Obama for his "belligerent talk toward Iran" and "his pandering on the Israeli-Palestinian issue".

As a senator, Nader says Obama "just didn't distinguish himself and that's not a very good sign. Because that's the real Obama, as opposed to the campaign trail Obama. The real Obama is one who's very cautious when it comes to challenging corporate power." He dismissed Clinton, as "a panderer and a flatterer" whose campaign has been ruined by the interference of too many political consultants.

Could he be as big as Obama?

He seems to believe so, although most Democratic insiders dismiss him as a dangerous nuisance. "Nobody is on a bigger ego trip than Ralph Nader," said James Carville, the Democratic Consultant and adviser to Hillary Clinton. Former President Jimmy Carter has urged Nader to "go back to examining the rear end of automobiles". Clinton herself believes that his 2000 run cost the world "the greenest (US) president" it could have had with Al Gore in 2000.

What is Nader's message?

Nader's website ( votenader.org) tells it all. With a bolt of lightening over a darkening sky and a banner about corporate greed, it asks: "Which side are you on?" Nader's list of enemies goes all the way from the goliaths of US capitalism to what he calls "corporate Democrats". The answer in white is, "People fighting back — Nader."

How are the other candidates reacting?

Obama responds to the development by dismissing Nader as an irrelevant crank, while sugar- coating his remarks with fulsome praise for his role as a consumer champion. He described him as somebody who, if "you don't listen and adopt all of his policies, thinks you're not substantive. He seems to have a pretty high opinion of his own work. Now, and by the way, I have to say that historically, he is a singular figure in American politics and has done as much as just about anybody on behalf of consumers ... But there's a sense now that, um, you know if somebody's not hewn to the Ralph Nader agenda then you, you must be lacking in some way."

Almost on the ropes herself, Clinton seemed a bit more worried, expressing the hope that Nader "doesn't hurt anyone" this year. "Obviously, it's not helpful to whoever our Democratic nominee is," she said.

Could Nader really be a factor in 2008?

Yes...

* He could help elect John McCain if his left-wing agenda scares enough wavering Republican or independent voters off Obama

* Nader has extraordinary media savvy: witness 40 years of laudatory coverage of his consumer causes in the face of smear tactics

* If enough US voters see that photo of Obama wearing a turban in Somalia (and they will), Nader may suddenly start to appeal

No...

* Obama and Clinton have so energised the Democratic base that another candidate won't make any difference at this point

* This is perhaps the worst time for an Arab-American (Nader's parents are Lebanese) to announce he is running for President

* Nader's progressive agenda scares conservative US voters to death. He knows he cannot win, but is playing a longer game

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