Crusader queers Clinton's pitch

A NIGHTMARE haunts the White House. It is that on 5 November, California, the crock of election gold and key to Bill Clinton's re-election hopes, somehow slips from the President's grasp. And all thanks to a man who is not a politician, and who has not the slightest chance nor, by his own admission, the desire, to win.

But alas for Mr Clinton, pragmatism was never the defining feature of Ralph Nader. This autumn, the world's most famous consumer advocate could hand the White House back to the Republicans in 1996. The Bob Dole juggernaut may have steamrollered California's Republican presidential primary on Tuesday into irrelevance. But come November the state will matter more than any other.

In just three years in office, Mr Clinton has already visited California 23 times. He has lavished federal money on the state, cossetted its Democratic congressional delegation, and attended fund-raisers by the score - all to lock up its 54 electoral college votes, a fifth of those required for victory. So far the strategy is paying off, as polls put the President miles ahead of Mr Dole in California. But that is to reckon without Mr Nader, who will be run- ning for the Green party.

Last week the state's respected Field Poll gave Mr Nader 6 per cent, essentially environmentalist and far-left votes that would normally be safely Democrat. At the moment that bloc does not matter, such is Mr Clinton's lead. But the contest is sure to tighten, and in a neck-and-neck finish Mr Nader could hand California to Mr Dole. And Green activists are trying to get him on the ballot in Maine, Pennsylvania and a dozen other states, in any one of which he might just do well enough to bring about a Republican victory.

Ralph Nader is a reassuring constant of American life. These days, a bald patch is starting to show and the black hair has traces of grey. But his dark eyes are as intense and his will as fierce as ever. At 61, he is at heart the same passionately committed Harvard-trained lawyer who in 1965 published Unsafe at Any Speed, the damning critique of design flaws in US cars which made him a global celebrity.

He still exudes the other-worldliness of a saint in a mediaeval church fresco. His diet is largely vegetarian. He lives in a modest flat in Washington, possessing neither wife, credit card, car nor computer. In the 1970s he was voted one of the 100 most influential Americans of the century - only to see his voice drowned out in the greedy '80s. But he persevered. Today he inhabits those uplands of permanent fame reserved for the likes of JK Galbraith and Muhammad Ali.

His causes may be redolent of the 1960s. But for the restless and dissatisfied electorate of 1996, they may find new life. With corporate America under attack over "downsizing", his anti-business message again resonates. His demands for term limits for Congressmen, for campaign finance reform, and his opposition to Nafta and Gatt (gifts for big business which hurt the interests of workers as well as environmental and job safety standards) are themes which have driven the campaigns of Ross Perot in 1992 and Pat Buchanan in 1996.

Frugal as ever, Mr Nader says he won't spend more than $5,000 on his campaign. But in California (where a Senate candidate spent $28m in 1994 and lost) that may not matter.

Admittedly, his previous flirtation with politics, when he ran in the New Hampshire primary four years ago and won 2 per cent of the vote, was not a thumping success. But this time the public yearns for other faces. "Tweedledum and Tweedledee," Nader calls the Republicans and Democrats, arguing that their joint shift to the right has left a void on the left. "The important thing is to give people an answer to their question: why do we have nowhere else to go?"

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