Ralph Nader is eating a banana--organic, naturally--in a Cadillac in Cleveland, Ohio. Usually, his staff rents a mere midsize car for him when he travels, but when the folks at the rental counter heard it was Ralph Nader who'd be tooling around in their vehicle, they offered an upgrade. This is a rare indulgence, though, in this shoe-string campaign. Nader has no motorcade, no private jet. He travels with just one staff member, flies coach and looks more like a rumpled academic than a presidential candidate.
For years the consumer activist never dived into electoral politics. Now the man whose 1965 auto-industry polemic, Unsafe at Any Speed, brought us mandatory seat belts is on a collision course with Al Gore. In the Bush-Gore race, Nader could throw the election to Bush by draining liberal votes from Gore. Even though Nader polls just 3% of likely voters nationally, according to the latest TIME/CNN poll, he runs much stronger in Oregon, Maine, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington and New Mexico. And Nader's supporters are enthusiastic: he has drawn crowds of 10,000 and more in Boston and Portland, Ore. He sold out New York City's Madison Square Garden, and he has more such superrallies planned in California and Wisconsin. Savoring his newfound success in electoral politics, Nader told TIME, "I should have done it sooner."
What's the appeal? Well, he's not Bush or Gore. In a race short on enthusiasm for two Ivy League centrists, the Ivy League radical (Princeton, Harvard Law) has panache. Plus there's nothing poll-tested about him. He doesn't do focus groups. At 66, he's a generation older than boomers Bush and Gore, but he's tapped into youthful idealism. A bit of a recluse, he doesn't own a car and is known for his old clothes, even though his speaking fees and investments have left him with personal assets of close to $4 million. But the key to Nader's clout is frustration on the left, especially when it comes to the globalization initiatives of Bill Clinton. Nader lashes out at the World Trade Organization and the recent passage of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China. Such agreements, he charges, betray workers here and abroad by ignoring labor and environmental standards. Indeed, several Nader-founded groups helped lead last year's demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle.
All this has left the Gore campaign wondering how to lure Nader voters. Its answer has been to have surrogates like Gloria Steinem and Jesse Jackson argue that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. "I make the case wherever I can that I need a partner at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue," says Representative Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who represents Madison, Wis. The National Abortion Rights Action League has sponsored TV ads urging Nader voters to "consider the risk," lest they elect Bush and tip the Supreme Court against legal abortion. The strategy could backfire by drawing even more attention to Nader. For Team Bush, the best response has been no response: just watch gleefully. One mischievous pro-Bush group, the Republican Leadership Council, however, is running ads with footage of Nader bashing Gore for "promises broken."