Nader's motley coalition could sink the Veep

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Ralph Nader, champion of the "little guy" and thorn in the flesh of America's two main political parties, brought his iconoclastic message to the centre of establishment power yesterday in a last effort to attract votes.

Ralph Nader, champion of the "little guy" and thorn in the flesh of America's two main political parties, brought his iconoclastic message to the centre of establishment power yesterday in a last effort to attract votes.

In an improbable finale to a year of grass roots and guerrilla campaigning, Mr Nader and several thousand supporters raised the roof of the MCI stadium for an exuberant rally that alternately denounced and ridiculed the whole political system.

That the Naderites chose Washington for their final rally was a snook deliberately cocked at a system which has excluded them. But yesterday, with Congress now adjourned until after the election, they had the capital to themselves.

No one believes that the professorial Mr Nader has the slightest chance of becoming the 43rd president - he included. But a combination of public mood and the closeness of this year's election has given him a following and a potential impact that would have seemed almost fantastical even six months ago.

Mr Nader's supporters are a motley coalition. They include a large contingent of college students, those sections of the Vietnam generation that never fully returned to the establishment fold, the liberal/intellectual fringe which is the closest that the US comes to a European-style social-democrat tendency and a wide variety of individuals brought together by disillusionment with the way politics is conducted in the US.

The role of big money is one common thread: Mr Nader wants European-style public funding for elections. Another is what Mr Nader and his supporters see as the hegemony of big corporations and the concomitant weakness of rank and file workers and consumers. But this is not all that Mr Nader is about: a central plank of his very specific platform is a call for universal health insurance. "Health care," says Mr Nader, "is a human right." He also joins with Pat Buchanan on the political right in opposing free trade as damaging to the interests of US workers.

For all these reasons, he has managed to muster a left-right coalition similar to the anti-globalisation alliance that rocked Seattle's World Trade Organisation meeting. He has also pulled some of those "independents" who supported Senator John McCain (on the right) and Bill Bradley (on the left) before they were eliminated in the primaries. Although the major parties have done their best to bring these voters into their respective folds, even Mr McCain - now campaigning for Mr Bush - admits their success appears to have been limited.

Across the country, polls indicate that Mr Nader - who was nominated for president by the tiny Green Party - has between 3 and 6 per cent of the vote. In a number of states, however - mostly in the more environmentally conscious and liberal-leaning northern tier - he has more. In the mid-western state of Minnesota, which demonstrated its independent credentials two years ago when it elected Jesse Ventura, the former pro-wrestler, to be governor, he is pushing 10 per cent.

In theory, such numbers make little inroads into the support of the major parties. But this year, with the margin in as many as 15 states reduced to less than five points, accounting for as many as 133 electoral college votes, Mr Nader's share could be crucial. Even in states where he stands to win less than 3 per cent of the vote, that 3 per cent could make the difference.

While at least some of Mr Nader's votes will come from those who would not otherwise vote, the assumption is that he will take more from Mr Gore than from Mr Bush, and could tip the balance in Mr Bush's favour in as many as five states. The New York Times has run to swingeing editorials lambasting him for distorting a perfectly good presidential race and a group of senior Democrats on the left of the party made representations to Mr Nader asking him either to withdraw or to cease campaigning in states where he could propel Mr Bush to victory.

An unapologetic Mr Nader has made clear that it is immaterial to him which of the big parties wins. Those of his supporters who worry about helping indirectly to elect Mr Bush recently caused a stir by proposing to "trade" their votes. Several websites took pledges from Nader supporters in marginal states offering to cast their vote for Mr Gore if someone in a safe state would vote for Mr Nader. The purpose of this ingenious scheme was to obtain the 5 per cent of the vote nationally that would guarantee Mr Nader public funding to fight the next election, in 2004.

For Mr Nader's supporters, it was just further proof of the self-perpetuating power of the establishment when these websites were closed down.