Sell-out for Nader as pollsters warn he could damage main candidates

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The Independent US

It was at first glimpse your typical political fund-raiser in New York City. A famous venue, celebrity guests, too many speeches, a confetti blizzard and even a sappy video biography of the party's nominee for the US presidency. Supporters whooped and cheered and dug into their pockets one more time to back the cause.

It was at first glimpse your typical political fund-raiser in New York City. A famous venue, celebrity guests, too many speeches, a confetti blizzard and even a sappy video biography of the party's nominee for the US presidency. Supporters whooped and cheered and dug into their pockets one more time to back the cause.

Except that Friday night at Madison Square Garden was not typical at all. The man of the hour was not Al or George but Ralph, and he wore an ill-fitting suit and displayed the oratorical skills of the average history professor. Those attending the event paid just $20 and were wise to have got there by bicycle or via the subway. Anyone arriving by limousine, in all likelihood would have been booed and sent away.

We are talking about that other candidate in the US presidential race, the one barred from the TV debates - even ejected from the audience of the first Gore-Bush encounter in Boston - because the powers that be, and therefore most of the media, deem him irrelevant. But Ralph Nader, the Green Party leader, begs to differ, and, two days ago, as he stood before the sell-out crowd of about 16,000, he might just have imagined the White House lay within his grasp.

It doesn't, of course, because his remains a fringe campaign, however enthusiastic his mostly twentysomething supporters. But Mr Nader's stance undoubtedly provides relief from the colourless tug-of-war of the Democrats and Republicans. With his Old Labour rhetoric about corporate greed and his grassroots activism, he draws voters who like to be rebels.

Even so there is resonance to his words: he ridicules Mr Gore and Mr Bush as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, two men with nothing to separate them, and he laments the power of the corporations. (No one counted how many times "corporations" was uttered on the stage on Friday, but it might have run to a hundred.)

Furthermore, Mr Nader, whose name has been synonymous with consumer rights in America for three decades, has been getting between 4 per cent and 7 per cent in the polls. He could make a difference, especially if the outcome in some large states rests on a knife-edge.

John Zogby, a leading pollster, said that all the fringe parties, including the Reform Party led by Pat Buchanan, could certainly muster 7 per cent together, which "could decide the election". "Nader can do real damage in some states," he said.

The damage, ironically, is likely to be inflicted on Al Gore, the candidate Mr Nader's supporters would naturally vote for were he not there. Many more left-leaning Democrats who think their party in the Clinton-Gore era has moved too far to the centre face a tough dilemma on 7 November. Should they vote for a man they like but who has no chance of winning, and risk handing the White House to George Bush?

Yes, they should, was the message on Friday. Mr Bush becoming the president of the United States would be a "horrible event", said the television documentary maker Mike Moore, who joined the line-up in the arena that also included the actors Susan Sarandon Tim Robbins and Bill Murray, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and rock singer Patti Smith. Urging the almost all-white crowd to vote with their consciences, Mr Moore told them: "The lesser of two evils, you still end up with evil. You don't make your decision because of fear, you make it on your hopes, your dreams, your aspirations."

For Mr Nader, the realistic hope is that he can emerge with enough of a showing for the Green Party, at least to become a voice on the political stage in the US and to become, finally, no longer irrelevant.

"Welcome to the politics of joy and justice," he told his delirious disciples. "We are building a historic, progressive, political movement in America, a movement for which 7 November is just one stopping place."

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